The Linguist

The Linguist 59,3 - June/July 2020

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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"I magine being able to snap your fingers and become fluent in twenty languages." That may well be the dream. It is also the first line of an advert for a device that claims to be able to deliver "professional grade translation" by going "a step further" than professional human interpreters. Waverly Labs' Ambassador claims all that and more, and whatever you might think of their particular brand of marketing schtick, they have been successful. The company has raised more than US$6 million in crowdfunding alone, and has managed to sell two product lines. We might have our own feelings about the claims made by the producers of speech translation devices, but we can't argue with their marketing and fundraising success. At a time when interpreters are dealing with the results of Covid-19 and the vagaries of government outsourcing, might it be time to learn the strategies used by these companies to see if we can adapt them for our own purposes? Language barriers as a problem The marketing messages used to sell machine interpreting can be split into three key ideas. The first is the simplest: language barriers are problems. From Andrew Ochoa of Waverly Labs bemoaning the fact that, without French, he couldn't chat up a French woman he liked 1 to Google vaunting the ability of their system to let you order a pizza in Italy, 2 the idea that linguistic differences create barriers is the foundation for everything these companies claim. This message might be written in terms of the challenges that people face in the real world, from closing business deals to finding their way on holiday, or it might take the form of connecting linguistic ability with sexual attractiveness. One company, Logbar, controversially advertised their ili device by sending out a man to see how many kisses he could get using it. 3 However the message is communicated, it betrays the same logical and cultural failures. Portraying languages as barriers supports the ideas that learning languages is hard and that all you need are the right words. Get a machine that can turn a sentence in English into one in Japanese or Spanish or French and the language barrier seems to disappear. However, anyone who has learned a language knows that words are just the beginning. Sure, it might be useful to have a device that helps you order a pizza in Italy, but learning Italian and getting to know the culture will tell you what might happen if you ask for a ham and pineapple pizza in a traditional Italian pizzeria. Even phrasebooks include little cultural notes. Surely, there has to be something better than seeing languages as barriers and pretending that knowing all the right words is enough. A triumph of technology The second message from machine interpreting makers is that overcoming language barriers requires a technical tour de force. Watch any video on machine interpreting, or read any blog post on the topic, and you will be introduced to smiling but hard-working engineers, complex diagrams and explanations of just how hard it was to crack the problem. Take, for example, the less controversial video from Logbar in which the founder of the company explains the background of the ili device, including technical drawings and him having one-way conversations with lots of happy professional-looking people. The message is clear: this man is leading the way to building a technical marvel. Waverly Labs take the same approach. In the video for their new Ambassador device, you can see close-up shots of the circuit board that is embedded inside, alongside explanations of the "microphone array" and, of course, promises that your speech is "uploaded to the cloud" to be translated using a "hybrid model". With the benefit of being able to promote a sequel to their first Pilot Translating Earpiece device, they can both praise their previous technical efforts and make impressive noises about their newest device. There are two important points to note here. Firstly, there is no doubt that any 12 The Linguist Vol/59 No/3 2020 COMMUNICATIONS & MARKETING Should interpreters adopt the marketing approaches of automated interpreting devices, asks Jonathan Downie Promising perfection ON THE GO Using a speech translation tool IMAGES © SHUTTERSTOCK

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