Whether it’s a babel fish, telepathic field, protocol droid, or universal translator, science fiction is full of gadgets that break down the language barriers between characters, allowing everyone to comfortably express themselves and share knowledge with one another.
We may not yet have our jetpacks, but the future is rapidly approaching when it comes to universal translation. Just this year, Microsoft demoed realtime automatic translation with Skype Translator. A tiny, cloud-based, Bluetooth translation gadget called SIGMO reached 1,660% of its fundraising goal on IndieGoGo. Spoken-language translation apps are even available on mobile devices. Options for text-based translation have been around for years. But where do museums fall on this tech wave?
In many ways, major museums, with their diverse audiences and respected, innovative brands, would be ideal spaces to pilot technologies at the forefront of the translation revolution. However, many still use prerecorded tours in a few set languages or multilingual brochures. In the museum world, the private sector is leading the way. In Canada, Interpretour provides an app-based exhibit experience that is automatically translatable into 24 languages. Periplus is an audio guide development tool that generates text-to-speech narration and is exploring auto-translation options.
The revolution is already in progress on the web. Google Translate is the tool of choice for shifting to preferred languages on the Edinburgh Museums & Galleries’ website, and tech giants Google and Microsoft also offer automatic translation through browsers and third-party sites like Facebook.
A wider range of language options would engage more visitors from multilingual homes as well as from around the world, but automatic translation can miss nuances in language that human translators intuit. What do you think: should museums partner with tech companies to pilot automatic translation software, or should they stick with traditional methods?