The Japanese are well-known for their organisational skills. Everything in Japan goes like clockwork. Considering that the average train delay there is 36 seconds (with a record of 18 seconds in 1997), who can challenge their reputation?

Actually, it’s not WHO, but WHAT. What can challenge Japan’s reputation as one of the most organised countries in the world? The answer is quite simple: the Olympic Games that will be hosted in Tokyo in the summer of 2020.

People from all corners of the world will be travelling to Tokyo (not just the Games participants and their teams, but also millions of tourists), the Japanese are well aware that they will have to cope with lots of people speaking lots of languages.

As a company providing translation and interpreting services in more than 100 languages (Japanese included), we like to keep an eye on things like this, so the Japanese tactic for overcoming the language barrier during the Olympics obviously caught our attention.

The need for speed

Speed has always been an important factor in a translation. The Japanese team wants to improve current translation technology by developing a system of automatic voice translation from Japanese into English with the least possible time lag.

There are major barriers to this because the Japanese language is very different from English in countless ways. One of the biggest headaches for the team behind this is that in Japanese, unlike English, the verb always comes last. This means that to enable the computer to translate it into English it has to wait until the end of the sentence, this results in a time lag of approximately five seconds which is not ideal if you are trying to have a conversation.

We’ve posted before about the downsides of relying on machine translation.

Successful real-time speech translation hinges on artificial intelligence of the highest quality: speech and text recognition is one thing, but translation is quite another. To reach the level of accuracy achieved by a human translator, not only do these highly intelligent machines have to convert each word into the target language, they also have to analyse entire phrases and infer their meaning before offering up a translation.

Maybe the Japanese team will succeed in minimising the time lag for Japanese to English translations; maybe they will develop the voice recognition system and reduce the time lag for English to Japanese translations, and even for other pairs of languages. But will this be enough?

Anyway, let’s hope that the Japanese will be better than the Chinese when translating for the world at the Olympics.