Can Social Media become a Universal Translator?

I have always been a huge fan of science fiction, mostly television and movies, but also a few select books as well. 

After only FTL (faster-than-light space travel, e.g., warp drive, hyperdrive, Infinite Improbability Drive, or “Ludicrous Speed”), the next most common technology found in almost all science fiction is a universal translator, which somehow manages to instantly translate all communication into the native language of the user.

Without question, and especially for television and movies, a universal translator serves as a useful plot device in science fiction. 

It saves valuable time otherwise spent explaining how people (especially from completely different planets) are able to communicate without knowing each other's language.  The time saved can therefore be dedicated to far cooler things, such as laser guns, lightsabers, space battles, and massive explosions—in other words, the truly scientific parts of science fiction.

Just a few of my universal translator (and science fiction) favorites include the following:

  • The Babel Fish – a small yellow leech-like fish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book series by Douglas Adams, which after it is inserted into your ear, simultaneously translates from one spoken language to another.


  • Translator Microbes – a bacteria injected on the Farscape television series, which after it has colonized your brain stem, translates spoken language and then passes the translation along to the rest of your brain.


  • The Universal Translator – a linguacode matrix on Star Trek, first used in the late 22nd century for the instant translation of Earth languages, which removed language barriers and helped Earth’s disparate cultures come to terms of universal peace.


It's a Small (Digital) World

Many of my social media blog posts have included some form of the following paragraph:

Rapid advancements in technology, coupled with the meteoric rise of the Internet and social media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) has created an amazing medium that is enabling people separated by vast distances and disparate cultures to come together, communicate, and collaborate in ways few would have thought possible less than a decade ago.

It's a really good paragraph (it must be since I just used it yet again!).  However, apparently channeling science fiction's useful plot device, I waxed poetic while ignoring the still very present communication challenge of language translation.

My native language is English, and like many people from the United States, it is the only language I am fluent in.  Blogging has made the digital version of my world much smaller and allowed my writing to reach parts of the world it wouldn’t otherwise have been able to reach—places where English is not the primary language.


What language do you blog in?

I have to admit that despite my professional experience, which has included some international commerce, I am often oblivious to how much of a challenge is faced by non-English speakers in the business world.  Blogging is certainly no exception.

On ProBlogger, Darren Rowse recently posted Bloggers from Non English Speaking Backgrounds, which was a follow-up to a recent newsletter survey about the challenges facing bloggers going into 2010, where quite a few of the responses came from bloggers for whom English was not their first language, and they cited two primary challenges:

  1. Not knowing which language they should blog in – Should they blog in their primary language and reach a potentially smaller readership, or should they blog in English where their readership could be larger, but where they have challenges with writing well?


  2. Feeling isolated from other bloggers – Some bloggers felt that they were not taken as seriously by bloggers in other parts of the world and therefore found networking difficult.  

Since Darren Rowse (he is based in Australia) is also only fluent in English, he requested that his readers comment on his post and share their perspectives on these common challenges.  The last time that I checked, the post had over 170 comments.

One of the most telling things for me is that this discussion wasn't limited to blogging in the business world. 

For me personally, I would have no choice but to blog in my primary language.  Just as an example, if Spanish was the primary language of the business blogging world, then I would have to either settle for a smaller readership, or simply not blog at all. 

Despite my four academic years with the language, just about the only complete sentence I can say in Spanish today is:

¿Dónde está el baño?

I can (pretend to) speak Danish

Some of you are probably thinking: What about computer software and online services for language translation?

I have always used Yahoo! Babel Fish (and long before it was purchased by Yahoo).  It is far from the most robust online translation service, but the science fiction reference in its name (see above) is likely the reason I frequent that particular website.

Many have told me that Google Language Tools is probably the most advanced (and free) online language translation service currently available.  However, no tool can make it as easy as science fiction—at least no current (free or otherwise) tool.

I recently used these tools to say Tak for din kommentar (“Thanks for your comment” in Danish) to Henrik Liliendahl Sørensen, for the excellent comment he left on one of my recent social media blog posts, which inspired me to write this blog post.

Not bad Danish for a non-native speaker, huh?  Well, to be completely honest—that was the final translation provided by Henrik after my initial attempt (although close) was not quite correct.    

And just to name one of the current options for blog translation, Wibiya is a free service allowing you to integrate applications and widgets into a customized web-based toolbar for your blog.  One of those applications is Translation, which is powered by Google Translate, and allows your blog readers to translate any page on your website into their native language with just a single click of their mouse.  If you would like to view an example of a blog using this feature, then please visit: Phil Simon's Blog.


What makes language translation so difficult?

Although the current online language translation services are helpful, they are far from perfect.

The most common challenge is what is referred to as round-trip translation, where in the process of translation, an intermediate language is used (most often the primary language of the translator).

As a simplistic example, let’s pretend I wanted to translate the earlier Danish phrase into Spanish. 

I would begin with a Danish to English translation (back to my primary language as a starting point), then an English to Spanish translation, and finally a Spanish to Danish translation (for verification purposes):

Tak for din kommentar –> Thank you for your comment (Danish –> English)

Thank you for your comment –> Gracias por tu comentario (English –> Spanish)

Gracias por tu comentario –> Tak for din kommentar (Spanish –> Danish)

Now, let’s try a more complex example by translating my favorite social media paragraph from English to Spanish to Danish, where for the sake of this example, we will pretend Spanish is my primary language.

Original paragraph in English:

Rapid advancements in technology, coupled with the meteoric rise of the Internet and social media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) has created an amazing medium that is enabling people separated by vast distances and disparate cultures to come together, communicate, and collaborate in ways few would have thought possible less than a decade ago.

English –> Spanish:

Los rápidos avances en tecnología, junto con el meteórico ascenso de Internet y medios de comunicación social (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc) ha creado un medio sorprendente que es posible que las personas separadas por enormes distancias y culturas diferentes se reúnan, se comunican, y colaborar en cuantas formas hubiera creído posible menos de una década atrás.  

Spanish –> Danish:

Hurtige fremskridt inden for teknologi, kombineret med den rivende anledning af internettet og sociale medier (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, osv.) har skabt et miljø, der kan overraske folk adskilt af store afstande og forskellige kulturer mødes, kommunikere og samarbejde på måder få troede muligt mindre end et årti siden.

Danish –> English:

Rapid advances in technology, coupled with the meteoric rise of the Internet and social media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) has created an environment that may surprise people separated by great distances and different cultures meet, communicate and collaborate in ways few thought possible less than a decade ago.

The differences are relatively minor:

  1. “advancements” –> “advances”
  2. “amazing medium that is enabling people” –> “environment that may surprise people”
  3. “separated by vast distances and disparate cultures” –> “separated by great distances and different cultures”
  4. “come together, communicate, and collaborate” –> “meet, communicate and collaborate”
  5. “in ways few would have thought possible” –> “in ways few thought possible”

However, #2 (“enabling” –> “surprise”) and to a lesser extent #4 (“come together” –> “meet”) have not only lessened the dramatic effect of my original words, but may leave the overall message open to different interpretation.

Therefore, it is easy to imagine the challenges inherit in translating entire blog posts or websites.


Can Social Media become a Universal Translator?

Will the continuing trends of both the rapid evolution of social media technology and the widespread adoption of social media for communication and collaboration, be able to deliver on science fiction’s promise of a universal translator?

Although we still don’t have warp drive or lightsabers, we do have some of the other seemingly impossible technologies from science fiction—just compare that mobile device you carry around with you to the communicator and tricorder from the original Star Trek television show.

Therefore, I remain hopeful that a universal translator is in our not too distant future.