The World at your Ears

One of the barriers that our ever more globalized world still faces is the language barrier. With almost 7 thousand different existing languages in the world (2009 data, Summer Institute of Language International, quoted by Linguistic Society of America), learning them all would be a herculean and impractical task. On the other hand, given that language is a fundamental part of identity, trying to unite humanity under a same tongue, whether fabricated (like Esperanto) or existing (like English, considered “default” in many international scenarios) might be considered almost offensive. Humans tend to avoid conflict and communicate with each in their mother tongue through an intermediary who speaks both languages: an interpreter.

(Lea esta entrada en español)

Recently, “interpreting earpieces” have been introduced and they have been designed to bypass these intermediaries and allow communication regardless of the speaker’s language. There are two prominent examples of these devices. One is Pilot, by Waverly Labs, which is available in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese (and a further 10 languages that will be available in autumn this year). Any person with this device can ask to join a conversation or it can be transmitted through a loudspeaker. The other is CLIK, by Mymanu, which offers 37 languages, requires a password to join conversations and offers a transcript.

Both of these devices use the Internet to connect to a free app that users must download to their mobile devices and synchronize with the earpieces via Bluetooth. They can also be used to listen to music and for some smartphone functions (calls, messages, memos).

As with any other invention, these earpieces have their pros and cons.

PROS

  • By eliminating the human intermediary, the message is only transmitted between speaker and listener, which gives a greater feeling of privacy and security. However, we must remember that professional interpreters maintain strict standards of confidentiality.
  • The earpieces allow people from different nationalities to choose their native language without having to use a “common” tongue (for instance, in a room where most people speak English, that’s the language used, even if there are native Spanish speakers in the room). However, this already happens at international events, where two or more interpreters in independent booths translate each in their own language, thereby satisfying every audience member’s needs.

CONS

  • There is a delay of a few seconds when the earpieces translate short phrases; the device waits for the speaker to finish speaking and then translates and transmits the message. Both companies promise to work on reducing the delay time, but one can only expect it to be longer as the phrases become longer. Events such as conferences, which are basically long monologues, need a simultaneous translation, in which the interpreter transmits the message almost as they receive it.
  • Neither brand specifies how many people can join the conversation. A human interpreter can serve a room filled with hundreds of people.
  • As with most modern tech devices, there are several specific logistical factors involved in their proper functioning. Communication may be lost if the mobile device is incompatible with the earpiece, if either device’s battery runs out, if there is no Internet signal or if the mobile data runs out, if the server is saturated…and so on. Furthermore, the companies warn that the hardware is delicate and cannot be used in extremely hot, dry or humid conditions since it could be damaged and would have to be replaced. Changing these devices frequently would be expensive.
  • As with Google Translate or Skype Translator, the translating software of the earpiece is not perfect, just “good enough”, and it will make many mistakes due to the subtleties inherent in any language, subtleties a human interpreter can respond to. The companies claim the software “learns” from people and that it will improve with time, but they do not specify how they will make this happen. A human interpreter, in comparison, learns from experience, education, and feedback.
  • The earpieces require the speaker to talk slowly, pronouncing each word carefully. However, spoken language is full of “filler words” (such as “ummm, ah, well, yeah, so,” among others), and every language has dialects and accents, not to mention that every person speaks with a different speed, clarity and volume, which could lead to mistakes in word detection and, therefore, interpreting mistakes. A human interpreter has the necessary experience and training to ignore filler words, understand different accents, and identify unclear words from context, as well as interpreting subtle differences between dialects.

It’s important to add that wearing earphones for a long time is bad for ear health, causing earwax accumulation, friction and pressure injuries in the ear canal, as well as chronic loss of hearing. What’s more, translator earpieces require users to keep one and lend the other; if this is done without adequate hygiene measures it could lead to infections. Finally, as with any other type of earpiece or “hands-free” device (especially if used to listen to music or receive smartphone notifications), they can be dangerous while walking down the street or driving, as the user may not hear the auditory warnings (a siren, a car honking) to avoid an accident.

Just as Kindle could not replace printed books, interpreting devices are still a long way from replacing human interpreters, who with their training, experience and hard work help us communicate while giving us a unique element: the human element, that no machine or software can replace.

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