Predicting the future of translation, circa 1960

I came across a fascinating blog today: Paleo-Future: A look into the future that never was showcases and discusses primary sources from the 1870s-1990s that predicted what the future would like. Since 2007, Matt Novak has written more than 500 posts, each of which provides a brief comment on a historical document (advertisements and newspaper or magazine articles, for the most part) that predicted such things as moving sidewalks, robotic companions, domed cities, and, of course, universal translation.

When I searched through the archives of Paleo-Future, I got a little over thirty hits for the word “translation”, although most of these turned out to be comments on the seven articles that actually address the issue. Not surprisingly, they all predict some sort of automated translation software/device that will produce accurate and idiomatic translations so that people do not have to learn other languages themselves to communicate with others. This is, after all, a common solution to intercultural and interspecies communication in science-fiction, from Star Trek to Farscape. (Brian Mossop, by the way, published an interesting article in 1996 about the treatment of translation in science fiction: The Image of Translation in Science Fiction & Astronomy, The Translator 2(1): 1-26).

Here’s a summary of the Paleo-Future articles about translation, in chronological order:

  • A 1960 syndicated comic (Closer than we think) from the Chicago Tribune foresaw a universal language box, based on the fact that the Air Force already had a bulky and complicated, 40-words-per-minute “robot translating machine.” Miniaturization and magnetic tapes, the comic strip suggested, could lead to a universal box that “might listen to one vernacular and instantly relay verbal a translation. Any language would then be usable anywhere, universally!”
  • A 1964 article from the Chicago Tribune predicted, among other things, that by 1989, teenagers and adults would have computers “to aid studies or automatically translate foreign tongues into English.”
  • A 1967 article from Futurist magazine predicted “the everyday employment of translating machines” in global communication within twenty years.
  • A 1981 book entitled School, Work and Play (World of Tomorrow) described the vacation of the future, noting that if you don’t speak the language of the Space Island you choose to visit, you can simply “hire a portable computer that translates instantly from one language to another.”
  • A 1982 catalogue for kids remarks that no one will have to learn foreign languages in the future, because “electronic language translator[s]” will translate everything one person says into another language: “When you say ‘Hello’ out will come ‘Konnichiwa’ in perfect Japanese.”
  • A 1993 AT&T video offered a “vision of the future” in which picture phones provide automatic simultaneous interpretation and even match lip movements to the target language speech.
  • A 1993 video clip predicted universal language translators.

I think what intrigues me most about these articles is the similarity of the visions, regardless of the year in which the prediction was published. Universal translation machines are just so appealing an idea, since they would remove nearly all existing barriers to interlingual communication, that the idea inevitably resurfaces. I do wonder, though, whether the similarity of vision stems from the fact that all these publications are from the United States and are written by speakers of one of the world’s dominant languages, English. Do predictions about language and translation differ in other countries and language communities, particularly those in which many speakers are bilingual? I’ll have to look into this.

And yet, some of the predictions are not too far off the mark. The 1967 and 1964 articles predicted that computerized translation would become popular but did not mention how accurate the translations might be. And certainly online translation software has become ubiquitous for gisting purposes. It does strike me though that predictions about translation inevitably focus on the automation of the process rather than on other aspects of the profession (e.g. predicting a greater need for translators as global trade increases or, conversely, a reduction in translation as language death increases and globalization gradually decreases the cultural and linguistic differences among the world’s communities); however, given that a great number of the sources cited on the Paleo-Future blog predict that any number of tasks, from housework to war, will be automated in the future, it is perhaps inevitable that interlingual communication should be seen in this light as well.

One thought on “Predicting the future of translation, circa 1960

  1. They say that men (and women) who dream and refuse to let go of their dreams sometimes make their dreams come true.

    But yes it is true, machine translation (MT) has made eMpTy promises for over 50 years.

    But the need does not go away and so more and of our brightest minds will try. I have written a longish blog entry about this subject.

    I doubt we will ever get to the point where we have the Star Trek device but we are already at a point where useful results are being produced for millions

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