Real-Time Speech Translation Revolutionary

by Translation Guy on April 23, 2013

Real-time speech translation will revolutionize how we communicate, according to Jonathan Luff at Wired magazine.

“Having thought about the issue a bit, and having witnessed some extraordinary advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, wearable technology, and real-time data analysis, I have come to believe that the next big leap forward is not represented by Google Glass, … but by ‘Google Ears’.”

Thanks to “Moore’s Law”, Luff believes that accurate, real-time translation of spoken language is just around the corner.

“Just think what an impact this will have. You will be able speak to, understand, learn from, and do business with anyone, in any place, at any time.”

Sound familiar? I mean, I’ve been listening to this ill-kept promise for 20 years. And despite all the hyperbole, machine translation and voice recognition have been getting better and better. But that Babel Fish paradigm, that instantaneous, Star Trek-like communication so useful to Captain Kirk’s xenophilic predilections remains out of technological reach

So maybe Luff knows something I don’t. After all, he’s the one that got the editorial in Wired magazine. They won’t even send me a rate card, for crying out loud.

Luff, a former diplomat, used to be British PM David Cameron’s advisor on digital strategy. But he recently quit that job to lobby in the UK for Wonga, a payday lender specializing in short-term online loans. With an APR of 4214%, it is loansharking made legal, and certainly qualifies Luff as a shill for digital pocket picking.

So first as a politician and then as a lobbyist, Luff has certainly proved adept at vacuuming the pockets of his clients, but how this qualifies him to comment on the bright new future of machine translation perplexes me. He has “thought about it a bit” in light of a project to translate more books into Arabic, possibly.

But for Wired editors, it’s not the messenger but the message. Instantaneous translation – that little technological G spot, the chance to speak any language virtually without actually having to know what you’re talking about. The nitty-gritty of actual translated speech, the misunderstandings, the headaches, the pure discomfort of the careful thought required for cross-cultural communication solved by the shiny new translation instrument is not considered at all. That kind of stuff is too real world. Better to look at things virtually through Google-tinted glasses.

It’s irritating that I am participating in this bull ship process, too. First you have the bright promise of the future. Then you have the curmudgeon saying it will never work. So keep moving. No news here. The only real, and irritating, consequence is the way this Star Trek communicator fetish complicates my own sales pitch. The hucksters talk about translation technology as if it’s the best thing since sliced bread, leaving us bakers to explain that the flavor of the bread is not in the slicing.


  1. James says:

    Although this all sounds very exciting and promising in paper, I do believe that we are far from seeing it if we are to see it one day at all. Interpreting in real time itself is a pretty hard and unpredictable task. I do not see how a computer will ever be able to do with accuracy good enough to be of any use. On the mean time, the only reliable option absilabe out there is to use Professional Translation Services from real interpreters.

  2. Nancy says:

    Actually to speak to as to the point about Luff being a politician, he was never that as politicians get elected, a bureaucrat from the Foreign Office dealing in Mid East affairs, yes. I would assume though that is where he draws his misguided authority on this issue.

  3. Barbara says:

    Stop naysaying Star Trek yech, if we get the communicator, maybe the green women aren’t far behind.

  4. David says:

    See your sales pitch shouldn’t be complicated by this, just show people how “advanced” Google Translate is by translating a news article or something for them and then ask them to read it, a few broken English sentences in you should have made your point.

  5. It really is quite ridiculous as to how this universal translator bunk has been ressurected over and over in the past few decades, only to die in raher unspectacular fashion again and again.

  6. Keith says:

    This guy should actually read up on Moore’s Law before throwing it out there like it’s a fact that this will happen.

  7. Tony Kalker says:

    Amen, preach on, brother.

  8. Isaac says:

    You are rather crumudgeonly about this, but eventually we’ll all be out of work due to more efficient technology, that’s just life in a technologically advanced society.

  9. I have no idea if this is possible, but I’m not going to say it isn’t because a lot of the technology today I would have said the idea of a decade ago was impossible.

  10. I wouldn’t be so sure it isn’t going to happen, just because the messenger is a sleazy lobbyist for loan sharks, doesn’t mean technology isn’t capable of increasing exponentially.

  11. While certainly he is a lobbyist, not a creature to be trusted, Moore’s Law is a misused concept in this situation. I’m not saying it isn’t possible, but Moore was speaking specifically about semiconductor circuits, rather there is a solid theoretical basis for predicting this in Kurweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns.

    • Ken says:

      The math in Moore’s law is so easy that even a journalist can get it. Next up, climate change… Just kidding.

  12. 4214% APR ?!?!?!?!

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