Lost in Translation

Travel Stories: The Phraselator will soon find its way into independent travelers' bags, but Rolf Potts prefers a more sublime kind of communion

01.09.04 | 9:45 PM ET

Ever since the days of Babel, international travelers have relied on three primary methods of bridging the language gap: taking the time to actually learn local tongues, which is seldom possible on a multi-country journey; utilizing a language phrasebook, which can be imperfect and sometimes tedious; or engaging in a spirited display of improvised face-pulling and sign language in the hopes of getting the point across, which—while dreadfully ineffective in terms of linguistic precision—can disarm hostile locals by making you look endearingly retarded.

Soon, however, a fourth tool will arrive to help intrepid travelers span the language gap. Its name is “The Phraselator.”

According to news reports, the U.S. military is developing a hand-held electronic language device that translates 200,000 prerecorded commands and questions into 30 different languages, including Russian, Chinese, Pashto and Arabic. A fully automated two-way version of The Phraselator (a name that, to me, implies that all phrases will be translated with a heavy Arnold Schwarzenegger accent) is expected to be ready for troops by early 2004.

Despite the seeming appeal of The Phraselator, however, researchers have conceded that it will likely be “unable to perceive metaphor, sarcasm, or irony,” presumably rendering it useless on poets, Seinfeld fans, or anyone born after 1965.

On top of this, I have serious doubts about just how much progress has been made in the field of voice-recognition technology, especially if the speech dictation software on my laptop computer is any indicator.  Speech dictation software supposedly converts one’s voice into computer text, but my experience would indicate that it has yet to be perfected for home use.

Shakespeare, for example, didn’t fare too well when I conducted an informal computer dictation test with my copy of Microsoft Speech SDK 5.1.

“But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” I said into the microphone. “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!”

After a few expectant beats—and I swear I haven’t altered this for effect—the following text appeared on my laptop screen:

“That soft! Watt light three under Brando breaks? It is deceased, and Juliet is the son!”

Baffled, I switched tacks.

“Roses are red, violets are blue.” I said.

To which my computer dutifully replied, “sugar is weed, and sour you.”

Admittedly, Microsoft Speech SDK 5.1 features practice drills, which I did not use, that help it adapt to the nuances of your particular voice—and I’m sure The Phraselator will include a similar technique.  The problem with this is that, even if U.S. soldiers perfect their Phraselator locution in advance, the device will obviously have problems with the unfamiliar voices of the foreign interviewees.

Indeed, one can only imagine the kind of Phraselator exchanges that could result in the heat of battle:

U.S. SOLDIER: Quick! Where are the insurgents hiding?

IRAQI INFORMANT (pointing to a bunker in the distance as he speaks into the Phraselator): Sugar is weed, and sour you!

Given that military technologies from jet engines to the Internet have always made their way into civilian hands, one can safely assume that The Phraselator will one day find its way into the bum-bags of independent travelers worldwide.

And, as with the prototype language phrasebooks of centuries past, this will probably result in a good deal of cross-cultural ridicule.

To understand the dangers of ill-conceived traveler translation technology, one need only recall a certain 19th century Portuguese-English phrasebook, tellingly entitled “English as She is Spoke.”  Originally published in 1855, this unfortunate tome was compiled by two distinguished Portuguese scholars—neither of whom spoke a word of English.  The resulting phrasebook, which was pieced together using a Portuguese-French dictionary and a French-English dictionary, provided readers with a bizarre collection of English declarations (“Let us go to respire the air!”), compliments (“These apricots make me to come water in my mouth!”),  complaints (“He has spit in my coat!”), insults (“You are imbecile!”) and proverbs (“The stone as roll not heap foam!”).  One can only imagine 19th century Portuguese travelers dazzling English and American locals with conversation-starters such as “It seems to me that the corn does push already!”; or “You hear the birds gurgling?”; or “Silence! There is a superb perch! Give me quick the rod!”

In time, “English as She is Spoke” came to be regarded as a masterpiece of accidental humor. “Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book,”  declared a bemused Mark Twain. “Nobody can imitate it successfully,  nobody can hope to produce its fellow.”

Nobody, that is, save the folks who developed the Internet’s renowned Babelfish language converter, which translates text with a mindless simplicity eerily akin to “English as She is Spoke.”  A Babelfish rendition of the French national anthem, for example, gave me this rousing refrain:

“French, for us, ah! what an insult Quels transport it must excite!  It is us whom one dares to contemplate to return to the antique slavery!”

Somehow, I suspect this translation doesn’t quite capture the intended gist of “La Marseillaise.”

If there’s a bright side to the language gap, however (aside from its abundant potential for comedy), it’s that we as travelers have never really needed technology to help us communicate. Indeed, language is rarely precise—even when shared between lovers or siblings—and sometimes the very charm of communication comes from its hopeful uncertainty.  Just as a conversation with a stranger at a nightclub carries a host of interpretations in your own hometown, a phrasebook-aided (or pantomime-aided) cross-cultural conversation can be filled with untold possibilities that arise only when you’re unable to say exactly what’s on your mind.

Once, in Cambodia, I spent four days in a rural village with no phrasebook and only a few common phrases of a third language (Thai). Reduced to the vocabulary of a child, I spent most of my time there hanging out with kids —an experience far more spontaneous and enjoyable than any “adult”  exchange would have provided.  Another time, in a Cairo café, the sight of my English-Arabic phrasebook won me the instant friendship of a half-dozen boisterous Egyptian pensioners.  Very little coherent conversation ensued (the old men mainly teased each other in Arabic and wrestled for possession of the phrasebook), but the incident afforded me an entertaining snapshot of the geriatric Arab teahouse scene—as well as a steady succession of backgammon partners.

Would either experience have been compromised had I been able to utilize the skewed precision of The Phraselator?

I’d like to think not.  I’d like to think that—at some point in the Cambodian village or at the Egyptian café—The Phraselator would have missed out on a crucial nuance, resulting in some sort of “sugar is weed,  and sour you” absurdity.

And then, after a good laugh at my expense, we would have set The Phraselator aside, picked up our banana leaves or our backgammon boards,  and resumed a more sublime kind of communion.


Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


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