Google has announced that they are developing software for a phone which can translate speech into a different language almost instantly. It's tempting to assume that the first phrase they'll need is, 'I have an app for that'. Speech-to-speech translation should, according to Franz Och, Google's head of translation services, be possible and work reasonably well in a few years time.
Seasoned future-watchers may think they have been here before. On January 7th, 1954, IBM issued a press release announcing that they had managed to translate Russian into English using an electronic brain. Although Professor Leon Dostert, the Georgetown language scholar involved in the project, conceded it wasn't yet possible 'to insert a Russian book at one end and come out with an English book at the other', he predicted that within three to five years 'interlingual meaning conversion by electronic process ... may well be an accomplished fact.'
Twenty-four years later, the fact was still far from accomplished, and Douglas Adams invented the Babel Fish, a small yellow creature which one placed in an ear, and which translated everything instantly. An organic solution to the translation problem, the fish was mind-bogglingly useful, even if it did help Arthur Dent understand Vogon poetry.
Google's translator phone will require two things to work, translation software and voice recognition. With regards to the latter, those of us who have watched a technologically-minded friend hurl a phone across a room because it can't understand the word 'Home', and dial a corresponding number, contrary to the promises made in the manual, may be understandably cautious.
And as for Google's translation software, I once did an episode of The Book Quiz, on BBC4, which had a round where we had to guess the poem which had been Googlemangled into another language and back again. Only the superhuman detective powers of the multilingual George Szirtes got us any points at all. Even then, the poetry side of things was rather lost: 'To survive or not,' Hamlet might say, 'this is a problem'.
Of course, Google Translate isn't designed to do poetry. It's honed on documents which have been translated by human beings into a second language: Russian, Chinese, or Arabic, for example. It picks up patterns in the language and uses them next time. But take the opening line of 1984, 'It was a cold, bright day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.' Google it into Chinese and back, and you get, 'This is a cold day in the bright April, the clock is striking 13'. The gist is there, but the tense has changed, one of the adjectives has leapt to a different noun.
And perhaps perfect translation would be a problem too. After all, the Babel Fish started a bloody war, as people could now finally understand what everyone else was saying. Maybe saying what you mean in your native tongue, slower and louder while gesticulating, is still the best bet. Is there an app for that?