Babel fish and the European Parliament

For years many people have complained about the European Parliament’s huge translation bill – both for translating official documents, and for the simultaneous interpretation of meetings within the Parliament each year.


Most of those complaining have been monoglot Anglophones who continue to be baffled about why everyone doesn’t just give up on their own languages and speak English instead 😉   You can anticipate a very long wait before the 27 Member States of the European Union agree to reduce translation costs by accepting only a limited number of working languages. I remember working for an MEP around a dozen years ago on plans for a single Community patent, which was being delayed by the question of whether patents would have to be translated into every EU language. Twelve years later… the same issue is still blocking progress on the EU patent. And there is no sign that the interpretation costs in the EP are about to reduce either.

But where the Council of Ministers has failed, a far more powerful institution may be about to succeed – Google has the answer. Yes, today Google is launching the ‘conversation mode’ of its Google translate app for Android phones. This promises real-time translation of conversations between different languages. You speak into the microphone, Google translates your speech and reads the translation out loud. Whoever you are speaking to can respond and Google will perform the same trick, reversing the languages. For those familiar with the work of Douglas Adams, this could be the first steps towards the babelfish – a mythical tiny fish, inserted in the ear, which translates every language in the universe.

Very clever stuff – even if the app is only in ‘alpha’ for the moment, which means that it doesn’t really work, and can only translate Spanish and English so far. But the potential for these kind of applications (and it won’t necessarily be Google which makes the best implementation) is huge.

So what’s the EU link? I’m sure you’re expecting me to suggest that these devices could lead to the Parliament slashing its interpretation budgets and making lots of interpreters redundant? Well, that could happen, but not for a long while. No, the EU connection which interested me lies in the contribution which the European Parliament is making to the project, rather than the benefits which it will reap.

The Google app works by converting speech into text, translating the text, then rendering it back into spoken form. But how does it translate? Being a Google product, it relies upon search of course. It scours the internet to find verified translations of words and phrases, and indexes these in order to build up its dictionaries. And where would you find such a repository of verified translations? Well, the work of international institutions such as the UN and European Parliament can provide the answer. Without knowing it, the European Parliament has been laying the groundwork for Google translate for years. Hardly anyone may read some of those translations of EP declarations on Communicating Europe, but it turns out that they were part of a much bigger communication project: helping the world to speak to each other.

Google’s app is a prototype for the moment, so it probably can’t handle ordering a beer in Spanish. But I’m sure it would have no problem with this phrase, all thanks to the European Parliament:

El Parlamento Europeo, el Consejo y la Comisión Europea conceden una importancia primordial a mejorar la comunicación respecto de las cuestiones de la Unión Europea, de manera que los ciudadanos europeos puedan ejercer su derecho a participar en la vida democrática de la Unión, en la que las decisiones se toman en la forma más pública posible y del modo más próximo al ciudadano, en el respeto de los principios del pluralismo, la participación, la apertura y la transparencia.


2 responses to “Babel fish and the European Parliament

  1. You are, I am assuming knowing how google translate works. Instead of working on the semantic meaning, it works at the statistical level and ranks how words are put together in various languages. It works by having a huge corpus of texts translated in various languages, so you can crunch enough data to make the result meaningful and translate by numbers.

    Where did they find the same content, available for free and translated in 27 languages ?

    As EU politigeek, I’m sure you know the answer and appreciate the irony.

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