There’s a piece of tech-wizardry in the pipeline that will instantaneously translate any language into yours. We think it should be banned…for our own good.
According to some scientific wizards in Germany and the United States, earpiece technology that will punch out crisp, concise translations when travelling abroad is a mere decade away. Theoretically. As far as I’ve been able to glean, it’s a Siri-meets-the-UN-General-Assembly-translation-earpiece-bit.
We’ll just assume that it’s happening, and adjust accordingly, but, and excuse the generalisation, is this just another lazy first-world tourist thing? You know, where you choose not to learn the native language based on the assumption that they’ll know yours? I’m not naming any names nor countries, but you know the ones.
Moving beyond stereotype, vast geopolitical assumptions or indeed the vestiges of Anglo-Saxon superiority, what would using that technology be like?
Well, fair reader, I’ve experienced it. It’s far beyond the realms of strange, man.
There I was, entirely lost in the neon miasma of Osaka’s twisted streets, my fingers gripping a metal pole as I was lashed around the lurching bowels of a burgundy-red lunchbox/commuter train, heading to a destination without a map.
As light momentarily illuminated the hopelessness of the situation (yet another station name that was unfamiliar to me), I craned a look toward my travel companion and partner at the time, who spoke no Japanese, because we agreed that she wouldn’t have to (she made the arrangements, so language was my responsibility).
Options exhausted, I turned toward the family next to me, who I decided would be fielding my ramshackle query in Nihon, by virtue of being closest to our problem. I bowed and politely asked: “Sumimasen, kono densha Shitennoji ni tomarimasuka?” (“I’m sorry, does this train stop at Shitennoji?”) that manufactured a strange, railed facial twitch from the family matriarch. Figuring my Japanese was the problem, I repeated my question, quicker this time, and trimmed the bow. She shuffled in her shoes, before nervously yammering back at me in a crisp Californian accent: “Pardon me?” For an eerie moment, all was not well, as my brain jettisoned itself through my sweated brow. It rushed to unrealistic conclusions:
Was I now fluent in Japanese? Why did my brain translate what she said into an American accent?
As it turns out, she was American. And couldn’t help me.
We eventually ended up at the temple, which is an irrelevant punchline, but the point is, the instantaneous knowledge of language is a real mindfuck.
As for an all-conquering earpiece that rules them all? I believe that it will exist, but I also believe that it should not exist. Why? Because learning a language when travelling abroad is of utmost importance. It’s about respect and education. If you’re rolling your eyes at the previous sentence because I sound like an embittered turn-of-the-century ditch digger who is being chiselled out of a job by progress, know this: we have a similar sense of humour and we should get a drink sometime, but you’re also wrong.
Reducing the gourmet banquet that is language to the status of the two-minute noodle is not a good thing. Think of it as Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. He may sit in the chair, and thereby he knows Kung Fu, but he doesn’t, he just merely thinks he knows everything. Which is the problem. When visiting a country, you should be humble. You should be there to learn from the locals. The cultural blending of everyone-meets-everyone may be a grand thing on a humanist level, but as far individual culture goes, it may just make everywhere kind of the same. Everywhere will feel strangely familiar. And that’s not, as Hemingway said, “the romance of the unusual.”
Imagine. Flash-forward to 2026: you’re spending your only night in Bangkok, and you head to this bar that is also a temple. You lock eyes with someone hot and they like the look of you. Nice, brah. So you swan over in your most harmless casual gait, only to have them swooped away by some moron, who doesn’t know the place as you do, but thanks to some whizzbang piece of tech (iYammer?), they get to leave with bae. Suddenly, your years spent learning the subtleties of South East Asian riposte and verbal jousting are scattered to the wind. Then you look around the bar and notice that culture etiquette has evaporated, everyone has an earpiece and no-one speaks Thai anymore, not even the locals, because they now speak Google-ese.
I wouldn’t call it the “death of language,” but I do weep for future travel. The romance in travel is, and always has been, the mystery. Stepping off the plane, everything is new and imbued with vast pangs of optimism. Would you really want to go to an exotic locale where you now know everything? And what of that unrealistic leveller you give the locals, one where you assume that they’re are all saints and it is your place of origin that is lazy and unfeeling. Would you rather that assumption or the truth? Would you rather the barbed wisecracks aimed at you to be translated into your ears?
Ohhhh La Paz. What a city. Oh, those people think I’m a…
Yeah, no thanks Google.