It's the holy grail of translation, a goal one researcher has called "more complex than building an atomic bomb." Smooth, immediate translations between people speaking different languages would be a remarkable achievement of enormous economic and cultural benefit. Some suggest that it won't happen until computers can express true artificial intelligence - something like C-3PO of "Star Wars" fame, whose knowledge extends far beyond mere vocabulary to an understanding of customs and cultures.
Still, researchers are chipping away at the problem. Universal translation is one of 10 emerging technologies that will affect our lives and work "in revolutionary ways" within a decade, Technology Review says.
In one promising approach, researchers are concentrating on phrases rather than individual words, which can have various shades of meaning and result in awkward translations (just try one of the computerized text translators on the Internet). Phrases pose fewer problems.
Translation is "much easier if you're working in phrases because one of the biggest problems of translation is ambiguity," says Robert Frederking, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University's Language Technologies Institute in Pittsburgh. "Individual words are very ambiguous, but whole phrases, especially in a particular context of use, are not really ambiguous."
For example, Japan's NEC Corporation already is experimenting with a hand-held two-way translator that relies on phrases. The device was tested in February at Japan's Narita International Airport. Users speaking into it could translate simple travel phrases such as "Which way to the escalators?" from English to Japanese or Japanese to English. The device needs about one second to analyze a sentence and reply with a spoken translation in Japanese or English.