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To someone who spent years learning Chinese as a second language, and then made my living for years as a Chinese-English interpreter, that was pretty impressive.

The economics of the issue is that a machine interpreter just has to be as good as a human interpreter at the same cost. That's a reachable target with today's computer technology. EVERY time I've heard someone else interpreting English or Chinese into the other language, I have heard mistakes, and I am chagrined to remember mistakes that I made over the years. We can't count on error-free machine interpretation between any pair of languages (human language is too ambiguous in many daily life cases for that), but if companies develop tested, validated software solutions for consecutive interpreting (what I usually did, and what is shown in the video) or simultaneous interpreting (the harder kind of interpreting in demand at the United Nations, where even in the best case it is not always done well), then those companies will be able to displace a lot of human professionals who rely on their language ability to make a living.

Right now a lot of interpreters in the United States make a lot of part-time income from gigs that involve suddenly getting telephone calls and joining in to interpret a telephone conversation in two languages. This is often necessary, for example, for physician interviews of patients in emergency rooms or pharmacist consultations with patients buying prescribed drugs (where I last saw a posted notice on how to access such an interpretation service). The IBM Watson project is already targeted at becoming an expert system for medical diagnosis, and patient care markets will surely provide a lot of income for further development of software interpretation between human languages.

It's still good for human beings to spend the time and effort to learn another human language (as so many HN participants have by learning English as a second language). That's a broadening experience and an intellectual delight. But just as riding horses is more a form of recreation these days than a basis for being employed, so too speaking another language will be a declining factor in seeking employment in the next decade.

I don't think there will be much of an impact on the interpreter industry until the machine translations are significantly better than human translations.

Human translators are so expensive today that they are only used in situations where the translation has to be correct -- diplomacy, courtrooms, books, etc. Until a machine is much better than a human, these use cases won't switch to machine translation (similarly, self-driving cars won't be allowed until they are proven to be much safer than human drivers).

On the other hand, there's a large casual market for machine translations today for situations like reading foreign Web sites, chatting with people in different countries, reading Tweets in a different language, etc.

Translators and interpreters are still used in a fairly wide range of situations. I've worked both as a document translator and as a spoken interpreter in a number of manufacturing plants.

After watching this video, I'm fairly confident that a large part of the interpreting that I did could already be handled by this technology.

Luis von Ahn, one of the creators of reCAPTCHA, has a fascinating project going:


The idea is to teach people language at the same time as providing a real time translation service. Apparently if you multi-plex novices (and not at a bad rate) you get expert translation at a similar accuracy. The translators benefit by learning language, and the service is self supporting by proving translation.

He did an excellent TED talk on the subject:


Sounds like taking on interns or co-ops. Pretty nice idea.

While machine translation is not ready yet, there are some incremental innovations in the interpreter industry.

A local entrepreneur is having some success with a remote system for interpreters that tries to replace the interpreter console and related expensive interpretation equipment:


Not sure how his has handled the strict no-lag requirements though, but they were doing trial runs in Washington and San Diego.

>Human translators are so expensive today that they are only used in situations where the translation has to be correct -- diplomacy, courtrooms, books, etc.

Professional translators and trained interpreters yes.

But thousands of people work solely (or assume the role periodically) as interpreters and translators for many more situations, mainly revolving around business.

Now, signing a business deal will still involve translator and a trained lawyer, but those other everyday cases, including showing a western partner around the Chinese offices, could switch to machine translation.

Or you know...many of the middle class Chinese that work in the offices that already speak English. Honestly, when I've walked into a Chinese office I've never had the "noone speaks English" problem, while the big boss who doesn't speak English would prefer to have one of the younger guy/gals around anyways as a sign of status.

> That's a broadening experience and an intellectual delight.

I disagree. It's only broadening in the additional people it allows you to commune with. Other than that, it's a waste of time.

Having to convert between languages (I'm a native speaker of English who lives in Germany) all the time is huge overhead, sort of like if every country had its own system of measurement, except that the overhead is incurred much more often, not just for measuring things.

It's broadening in many, many ways. nathannecro in his comment below highlights an intellectual aspect. There are others. Knowing -- I chose that word specifically, as opposed to "speaking" -- a language means knowing a culture. This broadens one's mind, and that in turn leads to acceptance. Acceptance of religions, of gays, and of the Japanese seemingly chasing Americans around meeting rooms. Amongst others. A notable other is that you realize just how insanely silly, myopic and stupid nationalism is.

There are subtler benefits - I speak three languages natively, and the part I love most about that is also the part that frustrates me most. Afrikaans is a modern language and has a relatively small vocabulary. Insulting someone therefore consists of creatively stringing together colourful combinations of everyday words, mixing in the odd English, Malaysian or Zulu word, and then spoken with a religious fervour that cracks you up. It's side-splittingly funny. What frustrates me is that no other language can do that, so I can't share that with my girlfriend, who is French.

German has similar mannerisms about it. It's naturally dry in a way that English, for all it's adjectives, can never hope to be.

To give you another perspective, I've always had a few deal-breakers I look for when meeting a girl I might otherwise be interested in. First, she needs to speak more than one language. Seconds, she needs to have spent a significant amount of time outside her own country. She must either be able to ski or snowboard. Last, she needs to be able to play a musical instrument. Beyond that I couldn't care less about race, job, creed, colour or any other bigoted perspective.

To know another language is to know another world.

Ever read 1984? A lot of linguists make arguements that our language shape the way we think and interact with the world, since at a young age we stop thinking visually and start thinking in spoken words.

In 1984, newspeak was all about removing ways to describe things the Party didn't want the public thinking about, so that in several generations of the language nobody would be able to comprehend dissent. And it actually has some real life foundations.

Just think of all the times a foreign language speaker says "I can't accurately represent this in whatever other tongue".

Note, I only know English, and after 6 years of Spanish throughout high school and college I have forgotten every wink of it. You really need to immerse yourself in a language to really dedicate it to memory, and constantly use it. Which is really a ton of overhead, that isn't really necessary, I agree.

I am aware of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

German, for example, has no word for "silly", while English has no word for "gem├╝tlichkeit".

Eliminating the overhead is worth any of these sacrifices, though.

Your example misses the mark as "silly" can be explained in German and Gem├╝tlichkeit can be explained in English.

Language structures our thoughts. It is claimed that Chinese are better at math because of their language structure. How you express things in a different language will help you more clearly see the concept in your own language. I learned more about English by learning German than I did in all my schooling. It improved my spelling as well because it made me understand the words I was using better.

It's not about explanatory power, it's about patterns of thinking. Americans call each other "silly" all the time, but I'm guessing German's don't. Even though it's possible, it takes more effort, and doesn't come to mind as readily.

They could call each other "lustig" or "lecherlich", which often covers what is meant by silly.

If you're interested in how language can shape the way you think, I highly recommend watching Lera Boroditsky's talk here:


It's VERY good. But skip the first 3 minutes of boring intro.

That it can be cumbersome for an expat, doesn't mean it's not a broadening experience and an intellectual delight.

For broadening experience, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/04/language-and-bias/

And for intellectual delight, see: http://www.amazon.com/Le-Ton-Beau-De-Marot/dp/0465086454 http://books.google.gr/books/about/Experiences_in_Translatio...

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