Microsoft recently demoed Skype Translator, which will be available as a Windows 8 beta app before the end of this year. As you can see in the video from the demo, the idea is that Translator can eliminate the need to learn new languages when people from different cultures communicate with each other. While both promising and ambitious, I have to wonder about the implications of such an initiative.
For example, what impact could it have on those of us currently working in the language training and intercultural communication fields? And could devices potentially communicate more effectively than us mere mortals? So rather than old-fashioned, direct communication, we could eventually come to rely on a trusted digital intermediary.
Communicating via an intermediary is nothing new; expert interpreters have filled that role for as long as people from different cultures have wanted to communicate with one another. But it's well known that the difficulty of such a task is that the words used by the speakers convey only part of the intended meaning. The translator must understand what was meant by the speaker's words and then convey that particular meaning to the listener. Often the meaning lies in the intonation that was used or in the cultural context of the words.
An example I use during my seminars to demonstrate this difficulty is the common French response to a request, "On verra." Translated literally into English it means "We'll see." In English if you respond to a request with "We'll see" it is listened to as "Maybe." In other words, there is a distinct possibility that if you ask again at some future time, "Yes" will be the answer to your request. With that interpretation, in the future you could feel confident about making the request again.
However, you have to be French, or have lived in France long enough as I have, to know what the French actually mean when they say "On verra." In fact, this is an indirect and polite way of saying "No." They are, in effect, declining the request. So imagine their surprise when if at some later date you make the same request (trust me, I've been there). Puzzled expressions ensue. They are sure they said no. You are sure they said maybe. Business people within intercultural business contexts have a lot of trouble navigating such perilous waters of communication.
So in my ideal vision, when Skype Translator encounters "On verra" it would ask the speaker this question: "Are you accepting or declining this request, or counteroffering?" In that way, it could help the speaker be clear about which parts of the request speech act are missing or unclear. As another example, after someone expresses an opinion Translator could ask: "Is that a grounded or ungrounded opinion?" That way both speaker and listener would be reminded about this key distinction, since not doing so often diminishes trust and causes unnecessary conflicts.
Until we realize that the "right" word is not where meaning resides, but rather in the human beings who are speaking and listening, we will continue to create unclear intercultural communication. So while I welcome technological progress like Skype Translator, my hope is that such technology can eventually serve the higher purpose of shattering the universal illusion that intercultural communication is actually taking place.