Pocket translators are quickly becoming a vital tool for businesses and tourists alike. More efficient than a call-in translation service, better suited for business meetings than a smartphone app, and instantly ready to perform the moment they’re needed, these small but powerful language tools are changing how we communicate. The ACCJ Journal spoke with industry experts and representatives of leading makers to find out how they are bringing down the Tower of Babel—and how far we have to go.
Universal translators have long been a staple of science fiction. And while their growing ubiquity in the real world may seem like a recent development, the use of machines for translation has been a reality since 1949, when American scientist and mathematician Warren Weaver wrote a memorandum on the subject entitled simply “Translation.”
Following this, in 1954, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) demonstrated a machine capable of translating Russian sentences into English at the New York headquarters of IBM.
Fast forward to 1999 and you’ll see development of the technology beginning in earnest in Japan. Kippo News reported in November of that year that a translation system for Japanese speakers to converse on the street with people from abroad through mobile phones had been created by Kyoto-based Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International-Interpreting Telecommunications Research Laboratories (ATR-ITR).
However, a high-priced, highly efficient computer that was inconvenient to carry was required to use the speech translation system. It was far from ideal for a country where smaller is always better, and a far cry from the pocket translators that are flooding the market today.
Progress in the areas of artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning technologies, such as the Google Neural Machine Translation (GNMT), have made possible near-seamless automatic translation in a device that fits in the palm of your hand. And this technology is only getting better as companies such as Sourcenext, King Jim Co., Ltd., Vormor, and Fujitsu Connected Technologies Ltd. (FCNT) develop more sophisticated devices.
“The idea and concept of bringing a translation device to market have been with us since around 2001,” a Sourcenext brand promoter told The ACCJ Journal. “The technology and communication environment necessary to bring mobile translation devices to reality was not quite up to speed.” Sourcenext makes the popular Pocketalk device.
Hidekazu Senoo, a representative in FCNT’s sales division, said they now offer various automatic translation functions. “Beyond text translation, image translation, such as in our arrows hello product, is possible through optical character recognition technology.” He added that accessibility is also being improved in the hardware design through better form factors and simpler controls.
Likewise, Masatoshi Takao, product development manager at King Jim, said that speech recognition has improved greatly. “Translation engines have collected enough information over the years that, by combining the data with speech recognition technology, practical translators such as our World Speak have become very accurate.”
This technology is freely available through smartphone apps such as Google Translation, which can use a phone’s camera to convert languages that use non-Latin scripts such as kanji, the Chinese characters used to write Japanese, into simple English on screen. For many uses, this is enough. But dedicated mobile translation devices can offer functions that smartphone apps do not—or cannot perform efficiently.
Despite the easy access of smartphone apps, dedicated pocket translators are growing in popularity. Sourcenext has sold 500,000 units of its Pocketalk device since it debuted in 2017. And other companies are equally excited for their market prospects.
Senoo believes the growing popularity stems from pocket translators being perceived as convenient tools for smoother, stress-free communication compared with smartphone-based tools. “There are many smartphone translation apps that can perform the same functions as single-purpose translation devices, but actual translation requires several steps,” he explained. “This is inconvenient from a usability perspective—especially in situations where real-time performance is required.”
Yiming Chen, Vormor’s marketing manager, shared Senoo’s sentiment. “To achieve more accurate translation results, it is necessary to constantly iterate the product hardware. If the accuracy of a translator device such as our Minitalk is the same as a mobile app, it will lose its value.”
Chen also links the recent surge in the translator market to globalization and the increased need for communication among businesses from different countries. “It takes too long for people to learn a new language. But with our Minitalk, they could ‘master’ various kinds of languages in seconds,” he said.
Easing communication is also important for consumers, and Japan is currently the hottest market for translation devices. Chen connects this to the substantial promotion by Japan-based translator companies and the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
That’s just one of the events that is helping the country fly past Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s tourism goals. A record-breaking 30 million people came to Japan in 2018, and numbers will only surge with the Rugby World Cup 2019 now underway and the 2025 World Expo coming to Osaka (page 14).
Despite the many infrastructure projects being undertaken in preparation for this influx of visitors, employees at tourist facilities, commercial facilities, and restaurants still struggle to communicate with visitors. But Senoo sees this as an opportunity. “The government is expecting 40 million visitors in 2020. Under such circumstances, we believe that the multilingual market will expand rapidly.”
FCNT is aiming to increase the number of languages supported by arrows hello, improving translation accuracy, and refining the user interface. “We believe there is a possibility of further growth depending on the effects of the Tokyo Olympics and government measures,” Senoo added. “We are proposing various uses that integrate translation technology and infrastructure in Japan.”
Chen shared a similar outlook. “Whether it is the 2020 Tokyo Olympics or Abe’s 2025 travel target, these events mean a certain trend. In the next few years, more and more visitors will come to Japan and the tourism industry will experience explosive growth. This will help the development of the translator’s ecosystem and, perhaps, it will extend more translation products to meet future needs.”
In preparing for the Rugby World Cup 2019 and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Sourcenext’s Pocketalk was being used by public organizations at host cities and facilities near venues. “We have also seen Pocketalk used as a communication tool by many sister cities and training camp locations to help welcome foreign athletes and build better relationships with the locals,” Sourcenext said.
Although the benefits of pocket translators in the tourism market are clear, some argue that the technology hasn’t quite reached the level needed for business communication.
There is growing concern that Japanese companies do not have a future on the global stage without undergoing what Rakuten, Inc. founder and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani dubbed Englishnization—the shift by Japan-based companies to English as the official language of the workplace. Rakuten announced such as move nearly a decade ago, in 2010, when Mikitani said the company’s 7,000 Japanese employees would have to become fluent in English within two years or face demotion.
The move led the way for other Japanese companies, such as Honda Motor Company, Ltd. and tiremaker Bridgestone Corporation, to follow suit.
But, as a whole, Japan still isn’t prepared to confidently conduct business in English. Many other companies, along with their employees, are not keen on a new language being forced upon them, either. The multilingual market wants machine translation to be the bridge.
While asked about the use of FCNT’s arrows hello in the business world, Senoo said that—although their translation engine is designed for the day-to-day scene, rather than in a business or academic setting—it suits informal business communication well, providing opportunities to build an international business relationship.
The G20 Summit in Osaka and the Tokyo International Film Festival are examples of events at which Pocketalk has been used effectively for such interactions.
Sourcenext shared feedback from one user who said: “At a party where content buyers and providers from around the world came together, people who couldn’t speak English were limited to just a simple business card exchange. But with Pocketalk, people could communicate and open new business opportunities.”
For formal business documents, however, a more refined and accurate approach is required. “AI-based machine translation will still need good translators to finish the job—particularly if we’re talking about client-facing material,” said Paul O’Hare, chief technical officer at Translation Business Systems Japan (TBSJ). “AI is part of the solution, but it’s far from a complete solution in its own right. Users will be disappointed if they expect high quality, because that’s not what it’s designed to do.”
Takao also shared the belief that machine translation still has room for improvement. “It can be used without a problem for daily conversation or even in a business setting, such as for teaching Japanese manners to corporate employees. However, all translators have the same problems, such as technical terms and proper nouns,” he said. “King Jim would like to develop products that can improve this issue to bring translation accuracy as close to 100 percent as possible.”
As O’Hare, whose company specializes in financial, legal, and marketing translation said, the taboo of machine translation should disappear over time, but he doubts the technology will be refined enough to replace humans any time soon. “We will see incremental improvements, but even with AI taking some of the load, it’s got to be the best translators who are still needed to take it the rest of the way—especially in our specific industry.”
But for many business purposes—and certainly for making the world of tourism more comfortable and rewarding for all involved—the technology packed in these small packages has brought to life those science fiction dreams of long ago. Whether machine translation will one day deliver results indistinguishable from the best human linguists, only time will tell.
Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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