Technology may be closing in on making instant, in-ear translation services a reality. But it’s still a galaxy away from truly replicating human communication.
When comedy science fiction writer Douglas Adams imagined a device that could instantly translate any language, he saw it as a small, yellow, telepathic fish that you put in your ear.
The Babel fish “excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with the nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them”. In other words, it takes words in one language and poops them out in another, straight into your brain.
It’s as good an idea as any, given the difficulty of real-time instant translation, and one which the translation and technology industry has been enthralled with since Adams’ novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was published in 1979.
Less than two decades later, AltaVista launched an online translation tool called babelfish, which was eventually purchased by Yahoo. It stuck around until 2012 when it…