Business Translation Center

Will Google's translation headphones transform the way we do business?

by OFER TIROSH 25/10/2017

After much anticipation, Google has finally revealed its modern-day attempt at creating Douglas Adams’ legendary Babel fish. The company’s in-ear headphones claim to be able to translate in real time, allowing two individuals who speak different languages to converse with ease. 

Google Pixel Buds are wireless ear buds providing translation powered by artificial intelligence (AI). They provide the translation even as the speaker talks, allowing for communication with very little delay, despite linguistic barriers. At least, that’s what it says on the tin. In reality, one can’t help but wonder if the technology will encounter the same problems that have dogged machine translation to date. (The most recent examples of this include racist language from WeChat and a Facebook translation mistake leading to the arrest of a construction worker for saying ‘good morning.’)

Even if Google’s new ear buds are still subject to these kind of mistakes, there can be no doubt that they represent a step forward in terms of language barrier removal. Consider their use in coffee shops, cafés and hotels in busy tourist areas and the business benefits begin to become clear. Even if the translation isn’t perfect, if individuals can make themselves understood well enough to carry out a transaction, then both the business and the customer benefit. 

There’s also the potential for Pixel Buds to be used in a corporate setting, for example for business translation between meeting attendees from different countries. However, it’s here that we need to introduce a note of caution. There’s a famous example of a new interpreter in Brussels who translated “En ces temps difficiles, il faut compter sur la sagesse normande” quite correctly as “In these difficult times, we must count on Norman wisdom,” much to the amusement of English-speaking listeners, who naturally found relying on Norman Wisdom an entertaining strategy. 

Such confusion can create unintended amusement. This is not always a good thing when dealing with professionals from other cultures. Laughing at those you are meeting with for reasons they don’t understand doesn’t tend to foster productive business relationships! 

Pixel Buds are also limited in their scope by their provision of only a verbal translation of what the speaker is saying. For written translations, professional human translation services will still be required. 

Despite this, Google’s newest product may well have a range of uses in the business world. How quickly it catches on will, of course, rely on the reputation that it establishes (or that it fails to establish) for its translation accuracy. Has the holy grail of producing the Babel fish finally been mastered? Or are we simply looking at a new way of presenting imperfect translations? Only time will tell! 

Will your business be trying the Google Pixel Buds anytime soon or will you stick with using professional translation services for the foreseeable future? Leave a comment below to let us know.