The Tower of Babel, a story from the Book of Genesis, tells of a grandiose tower built by mankind to reach the heavens. But, according to the story, God was not pleased with man reaching for divinity so he confused the languages of the builders, leading to them being scattered across the earth so today there are more than 7,000 languages spoken by humankind.

I was thinking on this as I undertook research into my latest book which involved delving into ancient manuscripts, French texts concerning the Knights Templar and other esoteric documents. For example, try this from Barbour’s the Bruce: Bot and I leyff in lege powyste/Yar deid rycht weill sall wengit be.  And that is English!

I struggled to learn French at school.  Perhaps unsurprising given that there was no language lab or trips to France or French TV or radio programmes to immerse myself in the language and culture.  I think I learnt most of my limited French at the time when I dated a pretty French girl on holiday in Bournemouth!  I subsequently took a residential course in Villefranche which boosted my proficiency but my command of the language is still basic.

Which is perhaps why the Babel fish introduced to the world by Douglas Adams in his seminal work The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was so appealing.  In the vast and ever-evolving landscape of technological innovation, few concepts have captured the imagination quite like the Babel fish. Adams describes the Babel fish as “small, yellow, and leechlike, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language.”

Despite its fictional origins, the Babel fish or a technological equivalent has long tantalized scientists with its potential implications for breaking down language barriers and fostering global communication. With advances in computer processing power, artificial intelligence and machine learning I ask myself the question: Could technology replicate the functions of the Babel fish within my lifetime?

The Inspiration Behind the Babel Fish

Douglas Adams conceived the Babel fish as a humorous yet thought-provoking device to explore the absurdity of language barriers in a universe filled with diverse species.  He explained that the Babel fish operates on the principle of telepathy, tapping into the brainwaves of the individual and performing real-time translation. While this premise may seem fantastical, it raises fundamental questions about the nature of communication and the potential for technology to bridge linguistic divides.

Current State of Language Translation Technology

While we may not yet have literal Babel fish swimming in our ears, the technologies that could make this possible including multilingual machine translation and natural language processing have progressed remarkably in recent years.

Machine translation systems, such as Google Translate and DeepL, leverage advanced algorithms and neural networks to translate text between multiple languages with remarkable accuracy. The AI tools developed by Meta can now translate directly from and into any of a combination of a hundred different languages and can work with languages primarily spoken rather than written.  Philip Seargeant, a linguist at the Open University in the UK notes, “Given the momentum in this area, it seems perfectly likely that some form of viable universal communication will be part of everyday life by the end of the decade”.

Truly replicating the seamless, instantaneous translation capability of the Babel fish however presents significant challenges.

The complexities inherent in spoken language present formidable obstacles. Unlike written text, spoken language is nuanced, context-dependent, and often rife with ambiguities. From accents and dialects to slang and cultural nuances, the intricacies of spoken communication pose a formidable challenge for machine translation systems.  Moreover, the real-time nature of spoken conversation necessitates instantaneous translation with minimal latency. Achieving this level of responsiveness while maintaining accuracy and fluency remains a daunting task.

However, recent advances in AI, the continuing increase in computing power and advances in natural language processing (NLP) offer promising avenues for overcoming the barriers to spoken language translation. Machine learning techniques, particularly those employing deep neural networks, have demonstrated remarkable proficiency in understanding and generating human-like text.

By training models on vast databanks of multilingual speech data, researchers have made significant strides in speech recognition and synthesis. These advances, coupled with the growing sophistication of machine translation algorithms, lay the groundwork for more robust and versatile spoken language translation systems.

In recent years, we have also seen the emergence of translation devices that bring us closer to the vision of the Babel fish (e.g. the Enence and Poliglu translators and Timekettle’s WT2). These devices, equipped with speech recognition and machine translation capabilities, offer almost real-time translation of spoken language through handheld devices and earpieces.

While current wearable translation technology falls short of the seamless, brainwave-based translation of the Babel fish, it represents a significant step forward in breaking down language barriers. As these devices continue to evolve and incorporate advancements in NLP and machine learning, we are likely to see exponential improvements in their accuracy, speed, and linguistic versatility.

As we barrel towards 2030, the dream of a universal translator akin to the Babel fish actually seems closer than ever before. While current technology has yet to fully replicate the seamless, telepathic translation of Douglas Adams’ imagination, the pace of progress is accelerating at an unprecedented rate.

With ongoing advancements in computer hardware, AI, machine learning, natural language processing, and wearable technology, the barriers to spoken language translation are being breached. While we may not yet have Babel fish swimming in our ears, there is every reason to believe that its equivalent may not be that far ahead in our future.