Could the ‘Tele Scouter’ revolutionise the world of translation?

The ‘Tele Scouter’, a recent invention from NEC due to launch in 2010, is a pair of glasses attached to a headset and mouthpiece, with a small projector that can transmit messages onto the retina of the user. It is intended for use in a customer service environment, allowing employees access to information regarding the client they are talking to.

Once the product is launched, NEC are intending to introduce a further function for the glasses, allowing instantaneous translation. During a multilingual conversation, both voices will be picked up, the dialogue translated, and sent back to the headset and projector. The messages will be shown in the user’s peripheral vision, allowing them to maintain eye contact with the person with whom they are having a conversation.

The microphone picks up the dialogue, transmits it to portable computers worn by the user, which in turn transfers it to a remote server which translates the vocabulary, and returns it to the ‘Tele Scouter’. The translation is heard by the other participant in the conversation, as well as being projected onto their retina.

In theory, this sounds like a fantastic idea. Perfect for use when no common language is shared by the parties involved; for confidential discussions, or when an interpreter is too great an expense. However, there seems to be great room for miscommunication…

Given the circumstances in which this device would be used, for international negotiations, business deals, top secret exchanges, the translation tool must be one hundred percent infallible, so as not to cause misunderstandings. One simple error could lead to a whole host of problems.

Machine translations are known for their unreliability. For example, I entered the following English text into a very popular translation tool online:

‘If you give the document to me, I can give it to him when he returns from holiday. He will receive it next Thursday.’

I was given a Spanish translation which, when translated back into English, differed slightly from the original:

‘If you give the document to me, I can give him on his return from vacation. The following will receive it on Thursday.’

Whilst these may only be minor errors, they do change the meaning of the sentence.

Furthermore, whereas a human being can use the context of the sentence to decide upon the most suitable option when there is a degree of ambiguity, a computer may not have this capability. This has the potential to cause some confusion, with examples such as ‘their’, ‘they’re’ or ‘there’. The device would need to be able to differentiate between a whole range of accents for any language: a Liverpudlian would pronounce a word in a very different way to a Londoner, for example.

Whilst the ‘Tele Scouter’ appears to be a remarkable advance in translation technology, the device would need significant development before it would be useful as a translation tool. Although at the current price, with 30 headsets expected to sell for £50,000, I’m not sure it will be too widely used…