While we may not have universal translators as seamless as Douglas Adams’s Babel fish or Kurt Vonnegut’s Gokubi, we do have Google translate and the newly invented ili, a handheld translator specifically marketed at cross-cultural lotharios. Spit game into the tiny wearable and, the advertising would have you believe, you’ll soon be kissing beautiful Japanese women. Is it surprising that a technology long used to further science fiction plots and contemplate the end of societal barriers would be sexualized right out of the gate? Not really. Sex is the point of the spear when it comes to cultural interaction, and universal translators open up a new romantic frontier.
Sure, a tool that let us seamlessly understand any language would be incredibly useful in politics or the advancement of science — but it would almost certainly get us laid as well, allowing everyone to chase their own version of “exotic.” However, sex is one thing and relationships are another. The ili and its descendants translate phrases and words, but they don’t provide road maps to cultures. In fact, they may facilitate miscommunication by allowing users to slowly accumulate misunderstandings. Translation, after all, does not render us completely comprehensible — not even language does that.
The limitations are striking.
“I think there is a good chance that you could make a machine capable of clear translations if all the information in the sentences were what is called ‘truth conditional information,’” Swarthmore College professor of linguistics Donna Jo Napoli told Inverse. “What you say would have to be false or true — like ‘I have a cat.’ Well, either you have one or you don’t.”
Unfortunately, it’s difficult-verging-on-impossible to avoid the ambiguous. Tone gives us context, but unless our translating machine lets that slip through, a lot is going to get lost in translation. You could say, for instance, “I only want to talk to Bob” and mean either that Bob is the only one you want to talk to or the chat is all you need from him. Anyone using a universal translator will have to count on the machine understanding context. A word like the Dutch “gezellig,” which means either “intimately comfortable” or “friendly” provides an example of a pitfall. A true universal translator would have to have an adequate understanding of social situations to figure out an analogous word. Then there’s lexical ambiguity — when words aren’t covered by a single translation, like “bark” in English and “cita” in Spanish.
One of the tools humans use to get around ambiguity is metaphorical language. Analogies and metaphors are a constant in human communication. “With their capability of embodying conceptual ideas in different cultures, metaphors permeate almost every sphere of our lives,” writes Fion Ho Yan Lau, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong. “The understanding and interpretation of metaphors also heavily relies on one’s first language and culture, in addition to the transparency of metaphors.”
That’s why it’s tricky to translate metaphors: They’re so culturally loaded they often make no sense in other languages. For example, some metaphors in English and Chinese share a general concept; such as the fact both languages connect anger with heat. But an English speaker would likely meet the Chinese expression of “You bear!” with confusion — while English speakers typically associate a bear with fierceness or playfulness, the implication in Chinese is that someone is acting like an idiot. Bears aren’t avatars of stupidity for the English-speaking world so this mild insult might come across as rather odd, complimentary, or sexually progressive.
No matter what, the accused bear would be confused.
Languages give individuals a crucial tool for self definition. They also are one of the major ways people construct their social identity. Researchers have found that sharing a language causes people to identify with each other more than sharing a cultural background. In the journal Language and Social Psychology, sociologists from Arizona State claim that it’s a reciprocal relationship — languages influence the formation of ethnic identity, but ethnic identity also influences how languages are used.
When we speak we’re not just relaying information; our words come loaded with our cultural experiences. And different words in different languages come loaded differently, even if they’re coming from the same person. In a 1987 study of immigrants in the United Kingdom, they found that the immigrants who chose to fill out a questionnaire in English reported different values than the immigrants who decided to answer in their native language. A separate study of Israelis living in Australia found that as they began to identify Australia as their home, they began to favor English over Hebrew. Language was intrinsically tied with how they identified with national culture.
The good news is that while language informs our world, it doesn’t shape it, meaning that besides the hiccups that come with translations, there are no major barriers keeping us from understanding each other. While the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has lost favor with linguists, a diluted version of it does make sense: Language affects certain aspects of our cognitive functioning. It doesn’t determine or fix our thoughts, but it defines our ability to use those thoughts to affect those around us.
“Language can sometimes reflect the ways that we connect things in the world through the various lexical items that we use, but it does not determine the structure of our world,” says Napoli. “Our world only imposes itself on language in the most obvious of ways — like if there is a hierarchy of status in a community, then it is very possible that the language will reflect that hierarchy in its verb endings. But the language isn’t causing that hierarchy, like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests.”
That being said, universal translation doesn’t level pre-existing social hierarchies or provide the needed context for socially freighted language. Can a universal translator allow us to speak with each other and humanize ourselves? Absolutely. What it can’t do is translate the massive bulk of cultural experience that comes with language. A universal translator may be the ultimate wingman, but it isn’t a passport to cross-cultural understanding or love. The ways we misunderstand each other are deeper than that. They can’t be reached with a voice activated gadget.
A brain-to-brain interface? Well, that’s a different matter.