GONE BABEL FISHIN’: IS TRAVEL READY FOR THE UNIVERSAL TRANSLATOR?

The days of the well-thumbed phrasebook might be coming to an end. Already, travellers are more likely to swipe through an app than flip through a book; now, new technology means that soon we might not even need to do that.

The universal translator has been a long-time staple of science fiction, appearing across literature and popularised by major TV series that depict humans and aliens conversing with no apparent language barrier (think A Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy‘s Babel fish, which is “small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language”).

Pilot Translating Earpiece

And now it’s becoming, almost, a reality. A recently launched translation earpiece, the Pilot, promises to interpret languages in real time, with only a few seconds delay. Although the device – which will retail at $249 – is currently still in a pre-order stage, early videos show it translating simple conversations with relatively little trouble. Its maker, Waverly Labs, also suggests that by using machine translation, Pilot will improve over time – although it will have to learn to adapt to strong accents or dialects.

It’s by no means the only translation gadget vying for attention this year, with Japanese brand Logbar launching the ili – a £160 holdable, dictaphone-like device that translates English, Japanese and Chinese. Another option comes in the form of Travis the Translator, a handheld gadget that retails from $149 and can interpret 80 languages.

All of these devices are still in their early stages and, as a result, the promise of instant interpretation is, perhaps, an optimistic one. While they undoubtedly remove the awkwardness and impersonal nature of having to consult a book or app, this kind of translation technology is still in development. And as the prices of these early gadgets show, they are not always a realistic choice for everyday travellers.

It’s also worth questioning whether some of the charm of travel itself lies in the satisfaction to be gained from learning a language, even if it’s just a few choice phrases? It’s not news that people everywhere rely too much on their smartphones, and for many travel is a chance to escape the tyranny of the screen. Do we really want to add another gadget to the suitcase?

That said, the possibilities these innovations offer are immense. Removing the language barrier has the potential to affect everything from checking into a hotel, to taking transport, ordering food, and even striking up conversation with strangers. And the truth is that, even with the best intentions, learning a language for every trip is unrealistic.

“Travis opens rather than closes possibilities”, says the team behind Travis the Translator. “People will keep learning languages, because it is a totally different experience; but for short trips, Travis can be very useful.”

Travis The Translator

Translation gadgets also assuage the fear and potential embarrassment that comes with speaking another language. Once these reservations are removed, travellers can perhaps feel more thoroughly immersed in a country’s ways and customs.

“We believe Pilot will truly open new opportunities and deepen one’s travel experiences”, says Waverly Labs’ Marion Guerriero. “From communications and logistics to cultural understanding, Pilot will shift the struggle of being lost in translation to understanding it all, starting with culture.”

With many of these early versions still in development, it’s clear there’s a way to go yet. Current technology may be clunky, but gadgets are sure to shrink as they improve – perhaps even becoming part of existing devices such as smartphones or wireless earbuds.

And in the meantime? There’s plenty of scope for hotels and travel companies to get ahead of the curve by trialling available options.


Emma Tucker is a freelance writer and editor specialising in design and visual culture. She has written for publications including Eye on Design, Dezeen, Creative Review, Grafik, The Pitch, The Spaces, Wrap and Riposte.