The rise of new technology is changing the way we think about language and the world. An expert explains how

For most of human history, the notion of a “Star Trek”-style universal translator seemed as farfetched as a warp drive or American universal healthcare. Not anymore: In recent years, Google Translate has made automated translation as easy as copy-and-pasting text into a browser; you can now auto-translate entire news articles at the click of a button, and a host of mind-blowing translation apps have hit the iPhone. Word Lens, for example, allows you to point your camera at a piece of text and see it translated in real time on your phone. (Check out the app trailerhere).

It’s a change that raises a number of bigger questions: Will automation completely replace human translation? Are we about to see the end of multilingualism? According to David Bellos, a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton and Booker Prize-winning translator, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. In his new book, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?,” about process and social meaning of translation, he persuasively argues that human translators are as crucial as ever. At a time when the world seems more globalized and small than ever, they play a central role helping us understand each other and bring art to a broader audience.

Salon spoke to Bellos over the phone about the future of English, the rise of the auto-translator and America’s cultural aversion to multilingualism.

Why is Google Translate succeeding where other automated translators failed?

In terms of user experience I think it’s a quantum leap in machine translation. In terms of its intellectual presuppositions it’s not a quantum leap, it’s just a very clever engineering solution. It uses a statistical method to find the most probably match for an expression — it doesn’t try to understand it or strip it down into vocabulary, syntax and meaning. It just looks for matches using a probabilistic computational device. Read more.

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