• Alysa Salzberg

Did this tech review website use Jane Austen for sabotage?

Jane Austen is many things, including a master of characterization and the inspiration for many, many retellings, spin-offs, and romcoms. But one thing you probably don’t associate Austen with is sabotage.


And yet, that might have been exactly what she – or, to be precise, the opening line of her novel Pride and Prejudice – was used for in a recent video review of WT2 Plus universal translator earbuds.


The earbuds claim to translate any spoken language into another, flawlessly and nearly instantaneously. It’s a neat idea, although the earbuds are far from the only instant translator/interpreter device on the market. But maybe Callum Booth of website TNW has a particular dislike of them.


The concept of his video review of the earbuds is both fun and practical: Booth will test them out by saying something in English and then seeing how that translates to someone in one language, who will then repeat what they’ve heard to a speaker in another language, and so on – yep, essentially a high-tech, global game of Telephone.


When it comes to picking a phrase to start with, well, there’s no real limit. In fact, I thought that since Booth opened the video by referencing the Babel fish from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, he’d use one of author Douglas Adams’s witticisms. Or maybe just a typical, everyday phrase.


Instead, for no reason I can fathom, Booth opted for the opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”


The choice made me audibly groan. I love Jane Austen, and that is an excellent opening for a book. But when it comes to translation, the line is a nightmare. It would at least give a slight pause to a human translator looking to convey Austen’s syntax and tone. But for AI, which works based on algorithms, it would be impossible to get right, since no one speaks or writes like that anymore.


Unsurprisingly, the translation game of Telephone quickly veers towards disaster. A balanced reviewer would then try another line, but the video ends there. Was this a subtle way to show that machine translation is not all-powerful? Was it simply wishful thinking that Jane Austen’s work, which speaks to so many of us around the globe, will also speak to machines?


If we could ask Jane Austen herself, maybe she’d reply, “seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken,” which is in keeping with her balanced way of looking at things – and would also be a tricky line for tech to translate.


Read on to learn more about this ill-fated game of AI translation telephone (and to watch the video, as well).



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