How technology can promote multilingualism and how it cannot

Credit: A Photo / Manuel Elias
  • Notice by Ian Richards, Mohamed Chiraz Baly (Geneva)
  • Inter Press Service

The UN declared her a champion of innovation, Elle magazine put her on the cover and Saudi Arabia granted her citizenship, a hat trick of “firsts” for a robot.

Many were impressed by his human qualities. Still, his ability to follow looks and answer questions masked the human input needed to deliver a realistic experience and concise liners. Those who interviewed her reported ( have to send questions in advance.

And while Sophia certainly created an important debate on the future of artificial intelligence, even its creators, after much criticism, admitted ( that people too quickly overestimated its technological capacity. Behind this wishful thinking, she was more of an airline customer service chatbot than human.

Yet while Sophia appears to have faded from public view, possibly due to Covid-19 (which also appears to have diminished our trust in airline customer service chatbots), digital diplomacy, as we have seen it. discovered on the International Mother Language Day this year, is not immune to technological escalation.

Next month, the UN will test a new virtual interpretation system at the 14th Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Kyoto. A number of delegates will attend, but the UN interpreters in Vienna and New York, who would normally have joined the conference, will stay at home instead.

Working early in the morning and late into the night, they will interpret the meeting negotiations into the six UN languages ​​over the Internet. Think of it as being in a Teams or Zoom meeting. Not only must you try to understand exactly what is being said, but you must also interpret it into another language and return it in the same line.

The biggest challenge will not be “you’re dumb”, but the poor sound quality.

Experience of using the system during lockdown, when there was no other choice, has shown how poor sound quality and faulty connections made the job harder, as performers have need higher sound quality than a normal listener to do their job properly.

Interpreters reported acute acoustic shock, tinnitus, headache, and nausea. The poor sound quality is due to the fact that platforms currently on the market compress sound to bring languages ​​back and forth at the same time. None of the systems comply with the ISO standard.

The United Nations is not alone with these problems.

An article ( on the Canadian Parliament, which operates in English and French, noted that “dealing with uncertain audio quality, occasional feedback loops, new technology and members of Parliament speaking too fast has resulted in a sharp increase in the number of ‘interpreters reporting injuries at work’.

Assumptions about the powers of technology have also affected UN translators. Following the introduction of a new computer-assisted translation tool, they were asked to increase their daily productivity goal from 5 pages of often dense technical text to 5.8.

The software has been touted as a Google translation on steroids. But a recent survey of its users showed that this point of view was far from shared.

While acknowledging its benefits, eighty percent of translators said they would not be able to meet the new productivity targets while maintaining minimum quality standards. One said the software was “often slow and time consuming, rather than time consuming, and its role is grossly overrated.”

Another pointed out that rewriting bad machine translations takes longer than translating from scratch. Several noted that computer-assisted translations could not compensate for a general decline in the quality of the original texts received by translators.

This year, International Mother Language Day was dedicated to multilingualism.

But two years ago, the United Nations General Assembly rightly noted that “multilingualism promotes unity in diversity and international understanding, tolerance and dialogue”, and recognized its contribution to “the promotion of international peace and security ”.

Technology plays an important role in promoting communications between language groups and has already made an important difference. But as with Sophia, this year we need to be as aware of what she can do as what she cannot do.

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© Inter Press Service (2021) – All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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