Saturday, 29 March 2014

What You Should Know about the World’s Spoken Languages

Some Language Facts

Let’s begin with some key facts about the world’s spoken languages:

  • More than 50% of the world's languages have no written form.
  • In Papua New Guinea over 10% of the world's languages are spoken.
  • In the United States more than 100 languages are spoken.
  • Over 80% of the languages spoken in the United States are endangered.

The facts above show that most of the world’s languages are still in spoken form. Hence, a lack of written documentation leads to the dying of many of those languages. Another challenge is to understand and interpret the spoken languages correctly, because interpretation should consider cultural differences, native vocabulary, sentence structure, sound etc. 

Words that can’t be translated!

An interesting article published on the Huff Post site gave examples of some untranslatable words throughout the world. It’s because appropriate terms or words are not available in the target languages. 

A few examples of such untranslatable words are:

Culaccino (Italian)
This word is used when a cold glass is left on a table, and it leaves its mark there due to condensation. 
Iktsuarpok (Inuit)
This is for expressing a feeling of anticipation that makes a person to go outside and check if someone is coming. 
Komorebi (Japanese)
This word signifies the interplay of sunlight through tree leaves.  
Pochemuchka (Russian)
This portrays someone who asks too many questions. 
Waldeinsamkeit (German)
This one expresses a sense of loneliness or solitude in the woods and feeling connected to nature. 

The above examples make it clear how verbiages vary from one country to another, and the relationship between words and their meanings are unique. Linguists have been researching for years to deconstruct the words to figure out how to provide numerous expressions and ideas that are difficult to translate.  

Can Real-time Translation technology solve translation issues?

Recent technological innovation like Project Glass does real-time translation of different languages. An automatic translation application in the glasses translates languages and helps people communicate.  The translations appear both on television screens and inside displays of the headsets.

Experiments like the one mentioned above were also done earlier in time. In January 1954, scientists experimented to translate from Russian to English through an electronic translator.  The machine was able to successfully translate multiple sentences from Russian into English. This experiment gave confidence to the scientists, and they claimed that the machine will be able to handle all translation issues over the next few years. However, that didn’t happen.
The following are some of the key reasons why even an advanced machine can’t provide comprehensive solutions to translation issues:

  • Languages are often quite subjective.
  • There are thousands of languages spoken across the world, and understanding their nuances is difficult for a machine.
  • Most Languages are not written and documented.
  • Understanding the language context is difficult for a machine.

The last pointer above on understanding context is considered as one of the major differentiators between a human and machine translation. When humans interpret, they don’t just translate words, they also think about the context to understand meaning. These understandings change according to the constantly changing situations, and only human creativity can keep up with that. A high-end technology aiming to play a major role in the translation domain needs to tackle additional issues such as grammar, speech recognition errors, high accuracy and speed for real-time use. 

Keeping off Translation Woes

In order to avoid ‘Lost in Translation’ issues, spoken language translations need to be done by qualified and experienced interpreters. It’s a key job considering the industries and domains that use interpreters. Be it politics, business, technology or any other field, incorrect translation can have a negative impact in terms of efficiency and credibility.

Interpreters need to consider translation assignments, keeping in mind the specific region, dialect, cultural and contextual issues along with skill sets and industry experience.


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