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What Is "Wah Lao" In French? - Why Current Translation Technology Still Doesn't Excite Me

Ever passed off a holiday destination because of the potential language barrier?

Major cities are increasingly having most directional and transportation-related signs translated English (the current Lingua Franca in the world), but there are still a good number of places in the world that lack these conveniences. Of course, I am saying this from the standpoint of privilege – my main language of communication being English.

Image Credit: Abasaa on Wikipedia
Image Credit: Abasaa on Wikipedia

The Popularity Of Translation Tools

The advent of translation websites and apps has undoubtedly broken down countless language barriers. I’m sure that you have tried your hand at translating the lyrics of your favourite foreign language song, or posting attention-seeking-yet-vague quotes in other languages on social media platforms.

With people getting increasingly reliant and attached to their smartphones, apps such as iTranslate, or the ubiquitous Google Translate (which also offers a visual translation option) are popular options for travellers to get around foreign countries themselves with as little trouble as possible.

Image Credit: xploredaily.com
Image Credit: xploredaily.com

However, most of these tools require internet connection, and even with that luxury, constantly looking down at your phone during a conversation barely makes for good social manners.

Google has taken these into consideration and recently launched an offline translation option for iOS users (Android users got lucky earlier).

Offline, Real Time Translation

This is where new standalone translation devices come in.

The Pilot earbuds by Waverly Labs recently garnered much attention (according to them, it has over 145k Facebook shares), and is said to work like the Babel Fish from classic sci-fi novel-turned-movie The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

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Image Credit: hitchhikers.wikia.com

Described to be small, yellow and leech-like, the Babel Fish is put into one’s ear and after which, translates anything said to you in a language you understand. The Pilot works is similar to the Babel Fish in terms of its proximity to one’s ear, but a living creature, it is not.

Image Credit: Waverly Labs
Image Credit: Waverly Labs

Founder of Waverly Labs Andrew Ochoa gushes in the video that his inspiration for creating the product came about after meeting a French girl. He envisions a future with “life untethered, free of language barriers”, and demonstrates how the Pilot works through a simple conversation with his (presumably) girlfriend.

The translated results are undoubtedly rather on point, but reminds me of when Google Translate gives me a grammar mistake-ridden mess of a sentence. An overlooking of these errors and a smart guess eradicates the issue, but one can only wonder what happens if non-standard language, such as slang, is used.

Specifics are still unknown, but it has been revealed that the Pilot will work alongside an app installed on your phone. All of this will take place offline, but one can only deduce that the earbuds are nothing more than Bluetooth receiver.

The device works in pairs, and thus will be sold as such, so do expect to be set back by US$246-299 if you’re interested to get your hands on it.

However, Early Birds prices are up for grabs via an Indiegogo campaign. According to their blog, a limited quantity will go for $129, then another round for $149, and then a few more Late Early Bird options for $179+.

Lost In Translation

I’ve always had a strong interest in languages, and have taken up Korean, Japanese and Spanish classes – all at varying levels. From my personal experience using both translation tools and my own knowledge on various occasions though, I still stand by my preference for language classes.

This is not to say that language classes ensures that you can communicate with the locals, like a local. Native speakers rattling on too quickly for you to catch on, unique dialects and slang that only exist in certain parts of a country, and even a simple mispronunciation of a word can go awry (though usually just funny).

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Language classes also take up a lot of time (and money!). Without someone to practice with you, your knowledge of it also decreases over time – this is especially prevalent among learners of more ‘obscure’ languages.

In spite of this, what the lessons do offer though, is an insight into the culture of the people speaking the language.

You’ll realise that in some languages, there are different levels of formality in the speech and writing. The way that you speak to a senior has to be altered from the way you speak to someone of your age. What current translation tools offer are, usually, the most standardised manner of speech, which can be useful when talking to strangers, but quite awkward when speaking to someone you befriend.

As mentioned, current translation tools are also rendered helpless in front of slang and also subtle changes in intonation – the thing that changes “Wow” from excitement to sarcasm.

To prove my case, I did an online translation of a few lines from a Japanese song:

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Any idea on what the lyrics are trying to say? I can’t tell either.

However, looking at the translation by a fan (who presumably knows Japanese) reveals a more accurate “Baby, my Beloved, my Beloved // I want you so bad it hurts // It’s already burning so deep // I can’t stop myself anymore” which definitely brings on the intended blush on my face.

Doing a quick flip of my Japanese dictionary and notes, I confirmed that the human-generated translation was closest to the meaning of the song. Any Japanese speakers who want to give me a better translation are welcome!

So, What Is “Wah Lao” In French?

In conclusion, I declare that translation tools as of now still do not excite me. Of course, I do not doubt their ability to make travelling easier for many (including myself), but I am still impatiently awaiting the day when slang can be translated accurately – both in words and in context.

P.S. “Wah Lao” in French is still “wah lao”, I checked. Would that make sense to a French speaker though? I don’t think so.

P.P.S. “Wah Lao” is Singlish (Singaporean-style English) which roughly translates to “oh my god, what?”, and is usually used as an expression of exasperation.

Featured Image Credit: gutterpupadventures.com