Machine translation and human progress

What subject connects Mass Effect, the Enlightenment philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, and Google Translate?

I was using Google Translate this morning when I saw this article about an earpiece which provides on-the-fly translation into English. The technology is based around a Bluetooth earbud and a mobile app, and provides a digital rendering in your ear of what someone just said. It’s the obvious next step from Google Translate, which now not only provides serviceable translations between most languages via your browser, but also allows you to use your camera to translate certain written languages (and non-Roman scripts) into English.

There’s no question that developments like this are quite exciting. Languages are a major part of human cultures, and linguistic variety is a beautiful and important thing. Nevertheless, there are obviously more languages in the world than even the most devoted polyglot will ever be able to learn, and anything which can promote cross-cultural exchange can only be a good thing. Moreover, learning languages is a time-consuming and, for many, boring process; it’s also expensive unless you’re able to teach yourself out of books, which requires a level of motivation and education most people don’t have. So taking the pain out of learning languages, or more specifically the pain out of understanding and talking to people in a different language, would be great.

Although the technology is new, the idea of rendering different languages mutually intelligible is not. It goes back to at least the seventeenth century, with the characteristica universalis of Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz was a famous polymath and Enlightenment scientist and philosopher, and one of his revolutionary ideas was to promote international scientific exchange by means of a universal language. Leibniz seems to have had the idea of basing this on Chinese, a language which was new to Europeans at that time and which intrigued Leibniz due to its possible relationship to advanced Chinese mathematics.

This sort of idea was popular throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and continental scholars invented a series of so-called ‘pasigraphies’. These were intellectual systems or practical manuals which professed to render languages mutually intelligible. They generally worked by breaking down philosophical concepts and forms of grammar into their basic elements, and trying to find ways to ‘map’ them on to each other across different languages. Such systems generally had limited success, and must have been a nightmare to understand and use, but their originators deserve credit for their vision and effort: essentially they were seeking to accomplish in a pre-industrial society the sort of thing which is only now starting to be made possible by advanced computers.

Of course, another area where this subject has been explored is in science fiction. Shows like Star Trek are based on the idea that languages have been rendered mutually intelligible between diverse alien species. Mass Effect is a recent example of an explicit attempt to address this in popular culture–at least in the form of an explanation in the in-game Codex for anyone who was interested. In the ME universe, most individuals know only their ‘mother tongue’, which is one of many languages from their home world and/or of their own race. They rely on portable computer devices, or implants, to translate other languages for them; someone, a Salarian say, will speak in their own language, but anyone listening will instantly hear it in their own language, be it Turian, Drell or Hanar. The system is subsidized and supported by state authorities who understand that galactic relations and trade couldn’t work without it.

Of course, there is still inherent value in learning languages, as well as in manual translation for artistic or technical purposes. But not everyone needs that, and, in theory, opening up languages to everyone through automated translation could be profoundly democratizing and progressive, and open up vast areas of cultural, scientific and academic collaboration. For that to happen, though, it’s something that needs to be in the hands of the state and public research institutions, rather than Google–and with the current world political system based on imperial competition, rather than human co-operation, that’s a sadly distant prospect. Nevertheless, it’s liberating to reflect on the potential of such technology, and on the ways that people have conceived of universal systems of communication from the early Enlightenment right up to the present day.

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