Google Pixel Buds: a real-life Babel Fish?

Earlier in October, Google announced their new communication device, the Pixel Bud earphones, which offer real-time translation  – not dissimilar to the mythical Babel Fish – and the news was peppered with headlines to the effect of “Pixel Buds will change the world!” But is this the catalytic innovation we think it is? How will this development impact the world of professional translation and interpreting?

Technology is changing how we communicate with the world around us – there’s no doubt about that. We’re constantly connected to the online world, whether it is by our phones, watches or tablets, and we expect content in our language to be available immediately. In order to cope with this demand of immediacy, language service providers (LSPs) are making huge advancements in language technology and processes.

How does it work?

There are three basic technologies used in this type of gadget: voice recognition; machine translation; and speech synthesis. The obvious question is: does it actually work? There’s no doubt that this concept is pioneering in the language industry, but the execution all depends on how advanced the translation engines are, how well the technology is supported, and the intelligence of the models used to build the technology.

Will machines replace human linguists?

Google’s Pixel Buds are mainly targeted at the consumer market, more specifically, tourism. In this sector, they are likely to thrive, as tourists’ translation requests are usually quite straightforward and lacking complexities in grammar or terminology.

If a tourist makes a slight error in their request for directions or ordering food from a menu, the repercussions are negligible.

However, a slight mistake in translating/interpreting in legal proceedings or at a medical appointment could cause huge consequences, even potential fatalities, hence why professional translation and interpreting requires stricter processes, secure systems and professional linguists, who are familiar with sector-specific terminology.

Is your data secure during translation?

Whilst free, online tools might be tempting to infer the general ‘gist’ of a phrase in another language, once content is input into these instant translation tools, the content is then accessible to the public – compromising the security and confidentiality of your company information.

Earlier in the year, a professional LSP came under fire after inadvertently publishing sensitive client information from their free machine translation service.

Text that had been typed into the LSP’s free tool had been indexed by Google, making it searchable and visible to anyone using the search engine.

Combining people with technology

When it comes to professional translation, the Pixel Buds are unlikely to be able to compete with the more advanced technology and tools, which have been built and developed by leading industry experts.

It’s important to view technological advancements as an advantage, not something to be wary of.

Whilst technology in the language industry continues to evolve, language itself still remains subjective, and therefore, technology will never be a standalone solution – it will always be used in combination with language experts, in order to effectively and accurately communicate in another language.


As well as being a self-confessed language geek and baking fanatic, Fiona is the Digital Marketing Manager at Capita Translation and Interpreting. When she's not writing blogs, she often dreams of touring France one patisserie at a time.

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