In the Sci Fi Book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, earthling Arthur Dent is teleported to an alien spaceship unable to understand what his sudden hosts the Vorgons are yelling at him. Luckily for Arthur, his travel companion slips a small fish-like organism into his ear where, much to Arthur’s horror, it burrows deep and takes root. Suddenly, the disorientated earthling can understand every grunt, groan and guffaw from the seven corners of the universe. This organism, the Babel Fish, is beloved as one of fiction’s most prescient ideas, a “mind-bogglingly useful” invention that can drop all language barriers between beings.
The Babel Fish was fiction, however, until now. Last month, along with the new Pixel 2 smartphones, Google also unveiled a set of Bluetooth earbuds called Pixel Buds which have a special feature: live translation between 40 different languages. “Say you’re in Little Italy, and you want to order your pasta like a pro. All you have to do is hold down on the right earbud and say, ‘Help me speak Italian’. As you talk, your Pixel phone’s speaker will play the translation in Italian out loud. When the waiter responds in Italian, you’ll hear the translation through your Pixel Buds,” said Adam Champy, the product manager for Pixel Buds.
The idea is that you’ll be able to walk up to nearly anybody in another country and hold a conversation without the need for swooping hand gestures and elaborate pointing like Basil Fawlty meeting the Germans, or instigating diplomatic incidents like Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s “we will bury you.” Now this won’t be some diplomatic be-all-end-all that will single-handedly bring about world peace, but we have come far since Altavista’s Babel Fish launched in 1997 — which supported a dozen languages but often returned barely-intelligible translations.
It will be many years yet until we reach seamless technical translations in every language but with the Pixel Buds, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s idea of a removal of language barriers is closer than ever. Be careful though: the book warns that the Babel Fish, “by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”