Whether you believe translation is becoming more about people or more about technology, there’s little doubt that one of its best uses is bringing more of today’s technology to more people. From a product manual to an interactive start guide, how people understand complex systems communicated across language barriers is nothing short of make-or-break for products and services engaging a global audience of consumers.
As complex systems go, it is hard to imagine something as heavily used and by such a diverse crowd as a central metro hub in an international city that sees tens of millions of foreign visitors each year. Yet when so much else is localized, many such throughfares remain places where visitors are on their own to puzzle out what’s on their ticket, on the signs, and on the loudspeaker – more easily said than done even in our native languages. Just as at home, the instinct to ask the station attendant naturally occurs abroad. Far less certain is that you or they can communicate, and even with the acceleration of large language models, there is only so far into the physical world you can venture by playing people translations on your phone.
Can technology help, however? In Japan, one rail service provider wants to try showing travelers translations that light up and vanish inside the glass between their eyes and the attendant’s in any of 11 foreign languages, turning the tables on the traditional paradigm that a country’s guests must come prepared and showing what happens when the host and not the visitor looks to AI for solutions.
Seibu Railway Puts Itself in Travelers’ Shoes
One destination is as good as another, but there may be a reason why Lost in Translation was filmed in Tokyo. Not to say one shouldn’t, but trying to become versed in a language with multiple alphabets and writing systems is a lot to ask even when a visitor does have long term plans. English translations abound in municipal settings, yet only to a point. Take for instance the ramen restaurant where this correspondent understood through chefs’ gestures that orders go into the indecipherable machine on the wall, and you can understand why, like in your own country, being able to write, type, and push-button your way through life can be the more welcome, if not only path. (More on this below.)
The Tokyo subway system, without further qualification, is among the most complex a foreign visitor could hope to navigate in a hurry. Those looking underground for translated station names will for the most part find Tokyo no exception to global norms, but that isn’t to say information is uniform one stop to the next. Seven private railway companies and two public ones operate in Tokyo, and changing lines can be a transition from one group’s interpretation of what it is to offer subway service to another’s. Simply put, this system is sprawling.
This week, Reuters reports that the regional Seibu Railway company is using its presence in the the permanently lit Shinjuku rail station to pilot a device called VoiceBiz, created by the printing-turned-technology company Toppan. Despite being stationary and removed from either party’s hands, sources consulted for the article expressed remarkable satisfaction with how personalized this form of translation support felt, for a very specific reason: the sense of face-to-face communication it allows for, putting the assistance directly into to point of contact that people naturally seek out. In the words of a German engineer noted as working for Alibaba (presumably someone familiar with cross-cultural communication), “You feel safe immediately because you know there’s a human on the other side….you take your time to explain what you need and you will know that they understand what you need.” He also remarked on the accuracy of the translations.
With any luck, Seibu’s station attendants are also happier for the help.
Lessons for Communications Far and Near
Earlier this week, USA Today asked what the hardest language is to learn, building a strong case that for the average English speaker it is likely to be Mandarin. Less clear is what the hardest language for a Mandarin speaker would be, or for a native of any of the languages VoiceBiz speaks. In this writer’s experience, a visit to Tokyo makes a great case in point against the assumption that there is such a thing, highlighting the oddly universal way most languages have of letting their guard down against a challenger. Which brings me back to the above-mentioned ramen bar visit. With a second-language knowledge of the almost identical Chinese characters for “soy sauce” and “noodles”, plus a quick guess that another group of lookalikes was sequencing the phonetics of “biru”, yours truly hit the right buttons and conjured the magic slip to hand over the counter for a bowl of Shoyu noodles and its natural companion, a pure malt lager, all without ever deliberately trying to learn a word of Japanese.
What makes a language hard is often the clues and context one has or doesn’t. In Shinjuku, Seiba’s seemingly static innovation stands to thrive precisely because it makes the best possible use of context where people in general are concerned, stepping outside of local linguistic and cultural cues to ask what the average confused voyager wants. In the end, it is not a quick machine translation, but an exchange that feels human and natural, however much assisted by technology.
From a language services perspective, the same lessons continue to drive the use of technology in professional localization, where the debate goes on around how far AI and machine learning can advance. No matter their power, there is simply no substitute for informed, professional translation that delivers the crucial human element that only in-country linguists can truly account for, when and where it matters.
Do you have experience learning a second language, or a story about navigating the world across cultures to share? Visit us at csoftintl.com to get in touch and learn more about our technology-driven translation solutions for companies communicating across borders!