COLUMN | “How do you say?” [The Bow Wave]

Unless you’re a mariner who sticks close to home, you’ve probably had moments in your life where you’ve had to engage with someone who doesn’t share a common language
with yourself.

I’ve been bundled into a police car on a dock at Tanjunk Priok outside of Jakarta with minimal idea of what my fate was going to be and I’ve had a Moroccan immigration officer take my passport after a lengthy chat in Arabic, a language I don’t speak.

I’m certain that I’m not alone in my experiences.

Before I carry on, let me declare that I’m a big fan of Google. I have a Gmail email account and I’ve used their “tools for business” systems for a previous business venture. I also make extensive use of Google Maps, YouTube and Picassa and my mobile phone and tablet are both running the Google Android operating system.

With all these free tools at my disposal it was a bit of a surprise to find myself on the streets of Thailand trying to arrange a ride from a tuk-tuk driver to take me to meet a mate at a bar, only to find that another, less well known tool, would be my saviour. The driver pulled out his phone and after opening an app he started speaking into it in Thai, lo and behold, the phone started speaking in English to me.

After the initial shock, and the driver indicating that I should respond, I replied by speaking into the phone after which several lines of text were displayed in Thai before they too were spoken out aloud. After a few more back-and-forths we had agreed upon my destination and a price, and the last thing I did before we set off was to find out what the app that we’d been using was.

I’d used the Google Translate website previously to translate large blocks of text into English and had often laughed at some of the translations, especially when I was able to show the initial text to a native speaker. But being able to recognise what words I’d spoken, translate them, and then speak them back in another language was something I found incredible.

After downloading the app and playing with it for a while I discovered a number of features that I think will come in handy for those in the maritime realm.

A picture tells a thousand words

This function allows you to hold your phone’s camera over any printed writing and it will translate what’s written, in real time, on the screen of your phone.

Ships officers will be able to use this image translator to peruse documents that a foreign agent might demand they sign, or perhaps to understand local docking procedures. Official translations have a habit of leaving a lot to be desired and so having the option of a “second opinion” so to speak, will undoubtedly come in handy.

Crew members with a different language to their officers may have next of kin or other important documents written in their native tongue. Officers will now be able to scan the documents for relevant contact or medical information in the event of an emergency.

It’s not all Greek to me after all

As mentioned above, the voice translator will be invaluable when interacting with foreign officials, and even when dealing with crew or contractors who you might ordinarily talk with in a language that is second to both parties.

Rather than two people hacking away at a language that they have a passing knowledge of, there will be more clarity by having a direct translation between the two primary languages.

I’ve so far used the voice translator in France, Italy, Hong Kong and Thailand and have used the image translator in the first three. Whilst there are some hiccups with words being translated literally, rather than figuratively in context with the rest of a sentence, it is still far better than waving your hands around and making uninterpretable hand signs.

I expect that in short time we’ll see all crew members on border patrol and fisheries enforcement vessels been issued with smartphones equipped with translation software. Being able to speak to people is far more productive than pointing at printed phrases on a card, especially if the people are scared, and as is sometimes the case, illiterate.

Skype, the popular internet video chat software that is now part of Microsoft has been experimenting with live translations. In contrast to the Voice Translator from Google, where each party takes turn speaking, and then listening to the translation, the Skype software translates the words as they are being spoken. It’s still going through development and errors do crop up thanks to the different sentence structure of different languages, but it
shows promise

How long before live translation becomes so common place that we barely register that it’s occurring?

Any comments, or perhaps you’ve come across something interesting? Feel free to contact me at [email protected]


Andrew Baird

Experienced geologist and seabed mining entrepreneur, Andrew reviews cutting edge technology from around the world across a wide spectrum of industries, and considers their potential applications in the work boat world.