Sue Halpern writes: A few days before I left for a trip to Japan with my husband, I signed up to rent a translation device called Pocketalk. According to a press release from January, when the device debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Pocketalk “learns as you go, fits in your pocket, and allows for customers to speak in full conversations, not just statements.” (It begins shipping to the United States this month.)
I was looking forward to friendly, meaningful interactions like the one in the Pocketalk promotional video, in which an American man and a girl who is, one assumes, his daughter are window-shopping at a bakery, or maybe a candy store, and are mystified by the goods in the window. The shopkeeper—an older Japanese woman in an apron—appears. “Why is that green?” the girl says, speaking into the small handheld device that is the size and shape of a well-used bar of soap and pointing at something that looks like a small bunch of grapes or verdant donut holes on a stick. Almost immediately, the machine broadcasts a string of Japanese words.
On hearing this, the shopkeeper smiles broadly. She understands! The girl and her father smile back. They understand that she understands! The shopkeeper takes the Pocketalk from the girl and speaks into it in Japanese. “Because they are made with herbs,” we hear the machine say after a bit, and everyone nods as if this makes perfect sense.
“Whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure, being able to speak the local language maximizes the trip,” the CEO of Sourcenext, the company that makes Pocketalk, was quoted in the press release from CES. “It’s like having your own personal interpreter and allows you to confidently travel the world.”
That, in a limited way, is the aim of the Japanese government, which has been pouring billions of yen into the development of artificial intelligence-based translation apps and gadgets in preparation for the 2020 Summer Olympics, hoping they will encourage tourism. “The [internal affairs] ministry wants to provide real-time machine translation services… to help visitors who may feel hesitant about coming to Japan because of the language barrier,” I read in the Japan Times (from a 2015 report). Apparently, they are making progress. A government-funded translation app named VoiceTra that was tested during the Tokyo marathon is now employed by the Japanese patent office. As Eiichiro Sumita, a developer of VoiceTra, told me in an email: “It has made clear recently that AI can improve translation accuracy largely even for the translation between far distant languages.”
I picked up my Pocketalk at the same kiosk in the Narita airport where I was renting a wifi hotspot. I needed the hotspot to use the machine, which relies on an Internet connection to access the databases where artificial intelligence sorts through millions of common words and phrases, looking for ones that best match the ones I spoke into it. It uses those matches to translate what I, or my Japanese counterpart, are saying. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, as anyone who has used Google Translate knows…
“All bets are off,” I said to my phone using the VoiceTra app when I was still in the US, and asked it to translate my words into Japanese, which it did. But when I checked what the app said I’d said—VoiceTra has a useful reverse translation feature—it wasn’t that at all. Instead, it was a single word: “Sure.” So, all bets were off, though I was still hopeful that a dedicated translation device would do better than an app on my phone.
The funny thing is that once I was in possession of the Pocketalk, I couldn’t make myself use it. Not at the hole-in-the-wall sushi place on our first night in Tokyo, where it felt more natural to point and mime than put a small electronic device between me and the sushi chef. And not at the 7/11 store, trying to figure out which bottled green tea was sweetened and which was not as customers queued behind me, eager to pay for their takeout jam-pan meals and cigarettes and get out of there. And not in the hotel. And not at the train station. And not in the taxi. And not at the ramen shop. I could go on.
Finally, as I was walking through Yoyogi Park in Tokyo one morning, I saw a woman and an Akita standing beside a poster that seemed to indicate that the dog did some kind of therapy work. I was too curious not to stop … (read more)