Japan: In a World with Automatic Translation

In a post titled I especially want to read ‘trivial information’ (“くだらない情報”こそ読んでみたい), Japanese blogger Chikirin gives a fresh perspective on what's important or not and why.

Note: The post was translated in its entirety with permission from the blogger. All links were added by Tomomi Sasaki for reference.

You know how the online community is sometimes wowed with the emergence of services with new technologies and ideas like Google Maps, Google Earth, and YouTube? The one that I'm looking forward to the most is “Automatic Translation”.

Right now, if an English site comes up while you're searching (in Japanese), there's a little button that says [Translate this page]. Yes, the translation is still very underdeveloped. I'm not asking for it to be perfect, but wouldn't it be exciting if the translation was just “a little bit better” AND automatic?

Tower of Babel by flickr user ThomasThomas

‘Tower of Babel’ by flickr user ThomasThomas (Tower of Babel By Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 16th century.)

It would be fantastic if whenever I did a search for something in Japanese, Google would retrieve results from all of the languages of the world. For example, a search for “鶏肉 トマト レシピ (chicken tomato recipe)” would retrieve chicken and tomato recipes from all over the world with all of the results being displayed in Japanese. Recipes from French Italian, Chinese, Arabic cuisine, originally written in that language would show up in Japanese on the Google results page.

Then, let's say there was a blog by an Italian farmer's wife with a post called “Family recipe for tomato chicken pasta”. And the translation might not be perfect but it would be readable and have photos so I could nod along as I read the post, and perhaps I could even try cooking that dish.

And then and then! If the pasta was really good, I might comment on her blog saying, “I'm Chikirin from Japan, nice to meet you! I REALLY loved your pasta recipe <3 !!!”. And she'd be able to read it in Italian. Remember, it'd just BE in Italian, since it was automatically translated for her.

I want to live in that world of automatic translation.

It would be so much fun. A search for “wife mother-in-law troubles” might let you learn how the problem manifests itself in other countries. Or a blog about erotic games (エロゲー eroge) might attract a comment from a faraway land like Honduras, saying “What's an EROGE?” Or if you searched for “pirates”, you might accidentally stumble upon an underground Somalian pirate recruitment site… hey, anything could happen!

Of course, negative comments would be translated as well. And everything would be open for rating. Wouldn't this be exciting? How about a site called “Negative comments around the world” Obviously, 2channel would receive a flood of comments from around the world.

What if there was a Chinese junior high school student asking “Who is higher ranked, Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao?” on a Chinese Q&A site. And then people from all over the would say “You're Chinese and you don't know the answer?” or “Join the communist party!”.

An oblivious American might interrupt with “What? The president and premier aren't the same person?”. And a Bulgarian might chime in with “Where's China? I couldn't find it on Google Earth… is it this island?” and someone might reply with “Nah, that's Taiwan!” and the conversation would veer off. That's the kind of thing I want to read!

Low employment rates among young people is a common issue throughout the world, right? A search with those keywords might connect us with angry Lost Generation youth from other countries. And it would be interesting to learn how youth in different countries expressed their anger.

A Korean student studying in Japan might post on her blog, “On the train today, I saw a woman do her make up routine perfectly during her commute. Japan is so incrediblimnida!”

These days, only important or relevant information gets translated. What I'm looking forward to is a world where even the most trivial and useless information is translated and available to anyone!

TV stations and newspapers broadcast news about other countries but they only cover “important news”: earthquakes, floods, forest fires, or political news. Personally though, I'm much more interested in the kind of information that I've given examples above, more than any forest fire.

In every country, there must be blogs that most people don't care about. (Well, I can't be certain but it's probably the case!) I believe that if everyone, everywhere could read all of the trivial information that's out there, we would truly be able to live together in a more peaceful world.

While it may be paradoxical, “What is truly important is to translate the unimportant.” and a world where only so-called important information gets translated is a boring one.

Thanks to Taku Nakajima for suggesting this article and Ziggy Okugawa for helping with the translation.
Please contact Tomomi Sasaki when posting a translation of this article on GV Lingua or on any other site.


  • Instead of [Google] translating every webpage out there, it’s way more efficient if the user just translates the word themselves and search accordingly. Not to mention building high quality automatic language parsers are more difficult to make than nuclear bombs.

    What I like to see is a huge, YouTube-size project to build an automatic translator that is “trained” by a social network community. Kind of like a Cucumis + BabelFish collabo. extravaganza. Or a news aggregator enabled by humans that “matches” articles with the same content with different languages. The engineers can work on vocab. and grammar, but IMO humans should mediate context and culture “translations.”

    • Thanks for the link.

      Yes, I agree that humans should mediate. An interesting thing to consider is that humans are changing too, though. I feel that as we are more exposed to machine translations, we are unconsciously training ourselves to get the most out of imperfectly translated text.

      Our tolerance gets higher while the quality gets better… and the pursuit of the dream to realize Star Trek’s Universal Translator lives on!

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  • Sam

    This is great insight and i commend your comments however, in a world where tempers are frail and actions without consquence are commited freely, having a ‘little better translation’ would not be advisable.

    If this technology could be perfected in the way you see it would be a truly amazing way to interect, travel, learn and live within communities of others from many miles away.

    • Hi Sam,

      I suppose we’d all like to believe in human nature enough – that the more we know about each other, the better we can get along.

      Until this technology gets perfected, it will be increments of “a little better” and “a little better than that”. So I guess we’ll see for ourselves what happens!

  • I want a world where language instruction is immediately available. Sometimes I study Spanish with a CD of conversation and a transcript that I can read in Spanish with my computer beside me to look up the words and phrases I don’t understand. I’d like to have the same system available for Japanese, Chinese, Hungarian, and other languages I am interested in learning at least a little about.

  • On a similar note, youtube videos will have the ability to auto-caption (and subsequently auto-translate) videos.

  • That is a fantastic vision. It is through “trivial” information that we humanize the “other”, and see a bit of ourselves reflected in the other.

    Plus, I want to share recipes and eat great food from around the world!

    Interestingly, there is a social networking site called ravelry.com that crosses language and geographic barriers. Membership is free, but users must register.

    Knitters and crocheters from around the world share their project photos and particulars in whatever supported language they prefer. Although I live in LA, another mommy/physicist/knitter who speaks Russian and English “friended” me. Through her, I found that the knitters in Russia are fashion miles ahead of us in LA.

    They are such creative and fearless problem solvers. (Like their physicists, who were always better at finding analytical solutions to equations than American counterparts who can afford to buy computers to do their integrals.) How would the cold war have played out if we saw each other as humans?

    Other bilingual social vectors have given me windows into knitting cultures in Italy, Germany and Japan.

    Ravelry has created both hyperlocal and multi-national mutual interest groups for interests outside of knitting. Would a site like that have the same impact if the audience/user group was not mostly female?

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