There has been a huge growth in handheld translators in recent years, with Japan in particular developing a number of these gadgets in the run up to next year’s Tokyo Olympics. It’s a $50-billion-dollar-a-year market that shows no signs of slowing down.

But how reliable are these devices and how much of a threat are they to the jobs of human translators? Do they preclude the need for us to learn a new language? Or are they merely the electronic equivalent or a Lonely Planet phrasebook?

On International Translation Day, we look at how efficient handheld translators are and whether they can ever replace human translators.

Handheld translators are improving with time

Machines do have a role

Machines of some kind have been used for translation purposes since the 1930s. Professional language service providers use complex machines that can translate languages much faster than humans, but they have limitations.

Nuance is one of the first things to be lost in any kind of machine translation. Machines lack the capacity to empathise and create a bond. They don't understand idioms, regional varieties or slang. They also translate at a sentence-by-sentence level so lack important context.

That’s why professional machine translation is often followed by human post-editing. Machine translation is fine for conveying the basic meaning of the source content, and if the translated document is staying internal (i.e., staying within a company or organisation and not going to be seen in public) then it is probably of an acceptable standard.

But it should not be relied upon for anything that requires accuracy. Nor should it be relied on for communicating a brand's message, or anything where people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Pocket machines for the people

Handheld electronic translation devices are relatively new, but there are already dozens of models to choose from and they are as affordable as a mid-priced smartphone.

Google currently offers £160 Pixel Buds headphones that enable wearers to translate languages in real time at the press of a button.

Similar technology has been developed by US-based Waverly Labs that allows two people who speak different languages understand each other using a £200 earpiece.

Japanese electronic companies have been busy developing several devices in preparation for hosting two major sporting events – the Rugby World Cup and Summer Olympics - over the next two years.

A graphic image of a handheld translator

Panasonic’s Megahonyaku, one of many innovations, is a multilingual loudspeaker that translates Japanese into English, Korean and Chinese. It is designed to relay information to large amounts of people in public areas such as train stations, airports and tourist areas.

Meanwhile, Amazon and Microsoft both have their own translation engines which can be used to convert text to a foreign language.

There are also Apps such as iTranslate and Translate Voice, which involve little, if any, cost.

And of course, Google Translate is also available to everyone, in most languages, for free. But, as with all machine translation it cannot be relied upon for accuracy and is often the cause of embarrassing gaffs.

Teething problems persist

As with any machine translation, handheld translators are never 100% reliable. And aside from the inevitable mangled syntax and erroneous words, problems that have arisen include:

  • Delayed response time - those slightly awkward pauses as the machine does its thing make for a rather stilted conversation.
  • Limited language options - some have as few as three language options.
  • Many models rely on an internet connection. Fine if you're in the middle of a capital city. Not so good in the jungles of Borneo.
  • They are also battery powered so can run out mid-translation.

So should I invest in a handheld translator?

If you’re a tourist planning on visiting a country where you don’t speak the local lingo, then maybe. A personal translation device will help you order a beer in a Spanish tapas bar or tell the vendor of a Tunisian market stall that the price of their pistachios is too much. It might even help you navigate your way around a foreign city if you get lost.

But if you intend to use it for a business meeting or to translate your website into another language, or anything where mistakes could prove embarrassing, costly, or both, there really is no comparison. The input of a professional interpreter or translator is absolutely vital.

The future of translators is secure - for now

A major breakthrough in translation technology occurred several years ago when businesses started using neural networks in their translation systems. This mimics the human brain’s ability to learn tasks, be it tying a shoelace or learning a language.

While this technology will get better, progress is slow.

Until we see a world leader give an important speech at the United Nations that is translated solely by a machine, professional translators can rest easy.

On International Translation Day, we should acknowledge the vital role they play and will continue to play for years to come.