We all dream that the day will come when language and communication barriers are torn down thanks to an instant voice translator worthy of science fiction films. And suddenly, like manna from heaven, Pilot, a speech translator, turns up and promises that all our dreams will come true.

Eureka! Communication and language barriers will be destroyed at last; the Tower of Babel will come crashing down! Wait a minute. Is that so? Is all that glitters gold? Don’t get too excited; first read this post in which we’ll tell you how the device works and analyse if it’s really ready to take our jobs.

What is speech translation?

What is Pilot? Pilot, apart from being a popular pen brand, is also a speech translator developed by Waverly Labs. It’s a two headsets and a microphone set combined with a smartphone app. How does this speech translator work? It’s simple, in principle: the conversation partners put the headphones on and, when one of them speaks, the message is sent to the other’s phone automatically.

It transforms it into text and translates the text into the target language, that is, the language of the recipient. The recipient receives the message in their native language through an automatic voice narrator. It usually works as an on-line translator, but it also has an off-line feature.

It sounds like a science fiction film, doesn’t it? We bet you’re packing your bags to go anywhere in the world now that you can communicate with anyone, whatever language they speak, thanks to Pilot. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s not really like that.

What about minority languages?

Pilot only supports about fifteen languages, more or less the most spoken ones on the planet. So forget about tearing down language barriers if you’re planning a trip that involves commenting on the weather with some Sherpas in the Himalayas or philosophising about life with a group of Maasai in the Kenyan savannah. No, that speech translator you’ve got in your pocket will be no use when facing minority languages like Sherpa or Maa.

One could also think Pilot could be a useful tool to reduce costs when offering interpretation services at conferences or international negotiations. In theory, meetings with people from different countries without the need for an interpreter would be feasible thanks to the Pilot speech translator. But would they be effective? Probably not.

Cultural differences and speech translation

It seems impossible to compare the incalculable help (other than their fee) provided by a professional interpreter with that of an automatic translator. A professional interpreter is not only a knowledgeable expert in two languages, but also a lay pontiff who bridges the gap between two cultures. And culture is truly essential.

As Nicola Minervini explained to us, more than 60% of negotiations fail because of not taking cultural differences between the parties involved into account. And no, Pilot isn’t able to detect if we are correctly adhering to conventions in terms of non-verbal language yet, or if our conversation partner’s “yes” actually means “maybe.”

We have to say that, at Ontranslation, due to previous experiences, we are quite sceptical about the future of automated translation in general and Pilot speech translator in particular, and we believe that the best translator or interpreter is always the one who has a brain with proper grey matter. At least, that is our point of view and our recommendation as industry professionals. What do you think? Surprise us!