Corrie Tan

Beauty of cultures lost in Google translation

Before crossing the border into Kazakhstan, one of my travel buddies thrust a sheet of paper at me, with a full list of Cyrillic alphabets and their English equivalents.

"Here, memorise this," he instructed all five of us, college friends who were travelling together on a three-month trip around Central Asia nearly 10 years ago. We stared at him blankly.

"Seriously, do it," he insisted, "so we can read street signs and figure out where to go."

We did - and it actually turned out to be incredibly useful when trying to hunt down the Chinese embassy in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city, to get a travel visa.

Suffice to say, you no longer need to memorise Cyrillic alphabets to read street signs in Russian.

Two weeks ago, Google unveiled "the future": Its Google Translate smartphone app now has a "word lens" that can scan street signs and simple sentences in real time via your phone's camera and do basic translations of live conversations.

For now, this is limited to a handful of languages, including Russian, German and French. It's not Star Trek's Universal Translator or the Babel Fish in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, but it's a close enough approximation that is probably only going to get better.

And I'm not sure how I feel about it.

I'm no linguist, but I love languages. In fact, I went on to learn Russian after that Central Asia backpacking trip. I find it incredible that we, as a species, have found thousands of different ways to communicate with one another at a highly complex level. In that sense, every language is a map to understanding culture.

Admittedly, the Google Translate app is impressive and will become more and more helpful as it is refined and polished.

I tried it on a Russian book - longer sentences and chunks of text get a bit garbled, but the magic of seeing words actually transform, on the screen, from one language to another feels almost like science fiction.

But might that take away from some of the challenges (and eventual joys) of visiting places where you are forced to confront a culture and language completely different from your own, without the help of technology?

Part of the excitement of travel and exploration lies in clutching a phrase book, asking the locals for directions or pointing at the next table to order food because you have no idea how to read the menu (and trying new delicacies along the way).

These encounters often breed serendipitous conversations and sometimes even little adventures.

A late night supper and nightcap in Kashgar, Xinjiang, led to a hysterical and completely non-verbal conversation with our neighbouring table, who plied us with strong rice wine and attempted to teach us Uighur.

During my first trip to Yangon with non Burmese-speaking friends, we decided on a whim to get our picture taken at an old-school photo studio, where a sweet, elderly Burmese woman tried to explain to us that she needed to arrange us in a certain, ridiculously formal way, to take what was deemed a "good photograph".

If we can just use our phones to do the work for us - to scan street signs and shop names or translate English into other languages for others to listen to - well, there is a usefulness and practicality to this sort of translation, but also a certain laziness to have an object mediate between two cultures.

Not to mention that a computer can somehow never match the human brain when it comes to the sinuous subtleties and nuances of translation and interpretation - as putting anything through Google Translate will probably tell you.

Not knowing a language is a humbling thing, as is learning it from scratch.

So much of a culture is encoded into its language. Prior to learning Russian, I had no idea how much you could vary the formality of speech. When you refer to someone as "you" in English, he could be a king or a commoner without any context, but in certain languages that social distance is so deeply embedded, that when you meet a more senior person for the first time, you should never address her informally because that would simply be rude.

In Burmese, one of my more recent steep learning curves, there is no exact word for "no". You can only negate the sentence that has been thrown at you: "Can you help me with this?" "I cannot help you with this." You are drawn into the negation process, which makes it so much more polite than a gruff "no".

I have never regretted learning new languages or picking up useful phrases from every country I visit. You are reminded that English is not the be-all and end-all. When you need to ask someone in a foreign country for help, you are no longer the fluent majority, you are the respectful minority, very much aware that you are an outsider to the country that has welcomed you as a tourist or long-term resident.

And people are always, always thrilled when you take the time to learn a bit of their language. They can see you laying the foundation of a bridge to carry you across the gulfs between them and us. And I have learnt that when you actively decide to build and cross that bridge, there will always be a welcome mat waiting for you.

corriet@sph.com.sg