Object 29

The Curve of Babel

2029, Forest of Dean, England

I've just travelled into Beechenhurst Lodge on a rather charming steam train that has a permit to burn actual coal. For once, it looks like the lasers have prevented rain today, which I'm very grateful for as I'm here to walk along the sculpture trail and see one object in particular, the Curve of Babel.

The sculptor of the Curve is Alice Singh, and I'm delighted that she's agreed to come along with me to talk about it in her own words. It’s words that make the Curve so special — the words engraved into its surface, in hundreds of living and dead languages from across history.

In 2029, there were more than 5,000 'living' languages in use around the world, with English, Mandarin, and Spanish serving as the world's principal tongues; even with China's rise, English maintained its role as the international language of trade, science, and politics. At the same time, the shift of every form of media from physical to digital was in full swing, with vast quantities of content indexed by search and semantic engines. This information served as an ever-expanding corpus for improving the performance of brute-force machine translation, where words and glyphs in ‘unknown’ texts were correlated with those in human-translated text.

Only a minute fraction of the content coming online had been translated by humans, though — mostly political statements, legal texts, news, and popular books, movies, TV shows, and games. That fraction still counted for a lot, but it wasn't quite enough, leading companies such as Dragon and Babylon to partner with massively multiplayer online language education games to put players to 'work' translating content in return for free access and virtual currency.

The process wasn't perfect, but, combined with smarter forms of translation and speech recognition, it improved the accuracy of machine-translated speech to the point that it could achieve well over 99.7 percent accuracy within a single second; just about fast enough to be used in conversation if you had a bit of patience. Here's what Alice Singh thinks:

"Babylon fascinated me. I remember being on holiday in Myanmar and just walking up to someone at a bus stop and talking to them. My words were translated through the Babylon program on my necklace into Burmese — and his words came back in reasonably good Malay. He was just as surprised as I was! Looking back though, it does seem rather slow... we're much better off now with simultaneous translation."

We're at the Curve of Babel now, a twisted ribbon of dull grey metal arcing over the ground just below head-height, sitting inside a small clearing. From a distance, it looks as if the sculpture's surface is slightly mottled, but if you look more closely you can see that it's completely covered in writing and symbols. The largest words are tens of centimetres tall, but they shrink down to just a few millimetres and even smaller still; you'd need very good optics to see the smallest words, only micrometres high. But I'll let Alice explain what it means:

"Before these translation systems came along, there were an awful lot of people concerned that the world would eventually settle on one or two or three universal languages like Mandarin and English. It wouldn't have been the first time that languages had become extinct, like many Indonesian ones such as Bonerif or Usku had in recent centuries, but it seemed that as with everything else, the rate of extinction might accelerate precipitously.

"When Babylon came along, it was the best thing that ever happened to the smaller, regional languages. It meant people could continue using them and teaching them to their children without being excluded from the world's culture. Automatic translation helped them to communicate with the rest of the world in their own voices.

"But there's always a balance, and it seemed to me that Babylon created a new problem, or at least a different problem. Automatic translation is a wonderful thing, but it isn't a substitute for the true mastery of a language. If anything, it encourages people to be lazy in how they write and communicate. You'd see people writing books and movies and games in their native languages that were designed to be easily translatable into English, and I was very much saddened by that. They were limiting themselves.

"So the Curve was a response to that. It has phrases from 539 different languages written on it, phrases designed to be as difficult as possible to translate, relying on idioms and unique cultural qualities of the language itself. Try translating the Finnish ‘kirjoitella’ into English, when English lacks the relevant grammatical category; or finding a single-word translation for the Yiddish ‘makhatunim’. You couldn't use Babylon on them — not the first version, anyway. I think even today a lot of AIs would have a hard time with the more obscure languages. Of course, that made my life quite difficult. I speak six languages, but I still had to rely on native speakers to contribute phrases for the other 533 languages I’ve included so far."

Alice is right — auto-translating the text on the Curve mostly reveals nonsense. If I want to try and understand it, I can bring up annotations, but like she says, it's only a shadow of what true understanding would be.

The Curve has become something of a pilgrimage for linguists, and it has inspired many other artworks that express the uniqueness of each and every language that has been developed.

"Some people think that the Curve is a statement against translation. It's certainly not intended in that way. On the whole I'm glad we have automatic translators such as Babylon and Dragon. Back when they launched there were a lot of ugly sentiments flying around after everyone's ears were suddenly unplugged, but a lot of new friendships, as well. Better that people talk to each other directly than through an intermediary, I think."

Alice comes here every few years or so to update the sculpture with phrases from new contributors. Today, she's adding her 540th language. She hopes to keep coming as long as she can — and that there'll always be new languages to add.