A few days before I left for a trip to Japan with my husband, I signed up to rent a translation device called Pocketalk. According to a press release from January, when the device debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Pocketalk “learns as you go, fits in your pocket, and allows for customers to speak in full conversations, not just statements.” (It begins shipping to the United States this month.)
I was looking forward to friendly, meaningful interactions like the one in the Pocketalk promotional video, in which an American man and a girl who is, one assumes, his daughter are window-shopping at a bakery, or maybe a candy store, and are mystified by the goods in the window. The shopkeeper—an older Japanese woman in an apron—appears. “Why is that green?” the girl says, speaking into the small handheld device that is the size and shape of a well-used bar of soap and pointing at something that looks like a small bunch of grapes or verdant donut holes on a stick. Almost immediately, the machine broadcasts a string of Japanese words.
On hearing this, the shopkeeper smiles broadly. She understands! The girl and her father smile back. They understand that she understands! The shopkeeper takes the Pocketalk from the girl and speaks into it in Japanese. “Because they are made with herbs,” we hear the machine say after a bit, and everyone nods as if this makes perfect sense.
. . . .
[T]he Japanese government . . . has been pouring billions of yen into the development of artificial intelligence-based translation apps and gadgets in preparation for the 2020 Summer Olympics, hoping they will encourage tourism. “The [internal affairs] ministry wants to provide real-time machine translation services… to help visitors who may feel hesitant about coming to Japan because of the language barrier,” I read in the Japan Times.
. . . .
I picked up my Pocketalk at the same kiosk in the Narita airport where I was renting a wifi hotspot. I needed the hotspot to use the machine, which relies on an Internet connection to access the databases where artificial intelligence sorts through millions of common words and phrases, looking for ones that best match the ones I spoke into it. It uses those matches to translate what I, or my Japanese counterpart, are saying. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, as anyone who has used Google Translate knows…
“All bets are off,” I said to my phone using the VoiceTra app when I was still in the US, and asked it to translate my words into Japanese, which it did. But when I checked what the app said I’d said—VoiceTra has a useful reverse translation feature—it wasn’t that at all. Instead, it was a single word: “Sure.” So, all bets were off, though I was still hopeful that a dedicated translation device would do better than an app on my phone.
. . . .
Finally, as I was walking through Yoyogi Park in Tokyo one morning, I saw a woman and an Akita standing beside a poster that seemed to indicate that the dog did some kind of therapy work. I was too curious not to stop. I turned on the Pocketalk and said, “Beautiful dog.” I wanted to ask if I could pet the dog, but the device hadn’t yet translated “beautiful dog,” and I didn’t want to confuse it. “We have to speak to the machine concisely and targeting the microphone precisely,” Eiichiro Sumita had cautioned me in his email. “If you don’t do that, the speech recognizer takes a long time and returns erroneous results and translator generates crazy sentences.” Eventually, “beautiful dog”—or possibly something else—came out of the device in Japanese, so I tried to pass the Pocketalk to the woman just as in the promo video. She looked at it, and me, skeptically, and did not take it. She did say something, though it was probably not, as the Pocketalk announced, “special king dog.”
One reason Japanese is a difficult language to translate, Sumita told me, is that “people often omit subjects because Japanese people understand each other without mentioning subjects.” In this case, I think we were both clear that the subject was the dog, which sat there patiently and unconcerned. No doubt, it was well-acquainted with the problems of translation. As I turned to leave, a woman standing nearby spoke up. “This is a specially-trained hearing-aid dog,” she said in perfect, British-inflected English. “They are here to raise public awareness.” I thanked her and put the Pocketalk away. It was days before I took it out again.
“Why are you wearing a rubber Donald Trump mask?” I asked a Japanese man two rows behind me at an amphitheater in Kyoto.