“And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. […] And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” Genesis, 11:1-7
October, 1942: Lost in translation – a common phrase, covering a range of situations in which we are subject to the burden of Babel: the moments where differences of language create, and render nearly-insuperable, gaps in human experience and understanding.
What, then, is lost in translation? Meaning, certainly. Understanding – of course. But what more might be lost when a common language cannot be accessed?
What about lives?
You are in Guadalcanal at the height of World War II: a hellscape where death at the hands of an enemy solider isn’t the only threat facing you. Around you, you see dozens of your military companions – perhaps even hundreds – develop headaches, fevers, nausea, outbreaks of sweating – and many are dying.
You know that your adversaries are facing the same challenges – the same misery and malady – and managed to attempt to engage in conversation with a local villager under the cover of darkness: an attempt to gather intelligence, to learn anything that might help save you and your companions.
Your companion wants to help – wants to explain the solutions that are making your American adversaries more successful in combating the disease facing them. But you lack a common language – and how to explain quinine or atabrine with only rudimentary English between you? How to outline the causes and cures of a complicated illness when arranging a meeting took all the linguistic capacity you possessed?
A wave of the hand. A shake of the head.
Lost in translation. Nothing to be done.
October, 2019: Found in translation? You are seeking to communicate, to a skeptical Senegalese French-speaker thousands of miles away from you, that the next delivery of mosquito nets from your charity cannot be used for fishing – that they are an essential defense in the fight against malaria.
Without nets, their rate of infection will soar. As the rate of infection soars, so will the rate of death. Clear, concise communication is imperative: all must be understood, accurately and speedily.
But what if nothing was lost in translation? What if the smartphone in your hand was all you needed to transverse linguistic and cultural gaps, to impress upon your recipients the gaps?
You speak into your smartphone in clear English, having activated voice-recognition technology that will identify each word as it is articulated, creating a near-perfect transcription of your insight and advice.
As you are speaking, an app is, in real-time, translating that transcription into fluent French, using thousands of hours of speech data to power the world’s most accurate translation algorithms.
Yet now, even more is possible. Driven by more AI-enabled algorithms, your smartphone will ensure that any gaps in meaning or tone are navigated by interspersing, among the French, a language that all can understand: emoji. Do not ❌ use your nets 🥅 for fishing! 🐟 They’re there to save you and your family 👪 from malaria 🤢– don’t waste them.
The response comes back in the form of two images: two images that express as much as succinctly as a dozen words – that require no shared English or French – The response comes back in the form of two images: two images that assure you that nothing has been lost in translation.
We understand. Thank you.
Breaking Babel’s Burden
In 1887, L.L. Zamenhof published the first guide to Esperanto – the constructed international auxiliary language that he hoped would “enable the learner to make direct use of his knowledge with people of any nationality.” Just over 120 years later, Esperanto has a mere 2 million native speakers: a fraction of the earth’s population.
In 1999, Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita created the first emoji – 176 12-by-12 pixel images designed to convey basic information in a more succinct, speedy manner. Under 20 years later, over 5 billion emojis are used on Facebook Messenger daily: a pictorial language that has transcended generations, class, and nationalities in a way that Zamenhof could scarcely have imagined for Esperanto.
In 2017, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation proposed an emoji mosquito as a way to better describe mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria and Zika. Recognizing the universality of the mosquito as a symbol of disease and death, they offer a glimpse into the possible future of emoji: a way of creating shared meaning when there are moments that our words can’t reach.
For as long as humanity has existed, the burden of Babel has proved a barrier to human flourishing: communicative gaps decrease efficiency, foster misunderstanding, and prevent the creation of interpersonal relationships.
The digital age, however, offers numerous possibilities to break down Babel’s burden. Emoji are facilitating cross-cultural communication, leading them to be spoken of by Wiredas “a lingua franca for the digital age”. Voice recognition technology, combined with accessible, AI-powered translation software, could offer real-time linguistic bridges, with emoji supplementing translated speech in ways that offered crucial insight into tone and emotion.
Creating these linguistic bridges could inspire a new age of human communication: an age where differences of language are overcome in seconds, and where cool, impersonal translation software is augmented and humanized by a return to pictorial communication: the often-derided, but barrier-breaking emoji.
Less misunderstanding and miscommunication. Better business efficiency. The forging of new links between individuals across the world. Maybe even saved lives.
There’s a vision of the future for you.
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