Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this (language) wall!
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A few months ago I found myself in a small village outside Ninh Binh, Vietnam, trying to tell a local mechanic—who didn't speak a lick of English—that the ignition coil on my friend's motorbike was burnt out.
We pointed to the gearbox and made frantic, useless gestures. When we were finally able to communicate the problem, we then had to explain that the faulty ignition coil was just a symptom of a deeper issue—an overheating engine.
In the end, we were only able to replace the coil, leaving the engine problem totally unresolved. And so, 15 miles later, the bike broke down again. I had to use my wobbly little Honda 110 to tow him like a horse-and-buggy to the next mechanic, and then repeat the process all over again.
Oh, and did I mention that it was raining the whole time?
All of this could have been avoided if we had a decent translator. Google Translate has its place, but it requires an internet connection. And if you've ever asked someone to translate from their language to English, you know how wildly nonsensical the verbiage can be.
What we need is something better. We need a translator that uses voice, not text, because text requires both literacy and a familiarity with mobile tech. And we need a translator that focuses on a small set of languages to maximize comprehension.
Luckily, that's exactly what the Ili—launched this week at CES 2016—claims to do. It's a wearable translator that repeats phrases back to you in the language of your choosing—currently, either English, Chinese, or Japanese. It works like any other digital translator, except for the fact that it's voice-activated and doesn't require an internet connection.
Logbar, maker of the Ili, promises to add more languages in the future, but it appears the company is taking things slow, aiming for precise translations rather than the spray-and-pray approach of Google Translate and other online translators.
The dongle-sized gadget also includes a phrase dictionary for common travel interactions, and connects to the cloud through a docking station to receive updates. Logbar says the next version will include French, Thai, and Korean, while the third will include Spanish, Italian, and Arabic.
We had a chance to check out the Ili at CES Unveiled, where company reps told us they couldn't give a proper demonstration due to the noise on the show floor. Fair enough. But even if the Ili falls short of completely busting the language barriers between English, Chinese, and Japanese speakers, this is certainly the direction we need to be headed. Google is reportedly working on a real-time translator right now, and you can bet within five years the language barrier will look more like a language turnstile.
Until then, travelers will just have to rely on a more tried-and-true method: smile and nod, smile and nod.