In the early days of social media, meeting people online was considered the domain of the socially awkward. Dating sites picked up on the trend though, and as the web has become ubiquitous so too has meeting people far away through chats, forums and dating platforms. Now there seems to be a crop of couples exploring a new frontier: machine translation coupling (I’m working on the name).
That’s what happened with Beyers Coedzee, (52, from Johannesburg, South Africa) and Vera Lamnci, (49, from Nizhny Novgorod, Russia). Over the weekend, Israeli daily Haaretz included their story in a feature on travelers going through Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport.
“If we get into a tangle, we can send each other WhatsApp messages, because that also has Google Translate,” Coedzee told a surprised interviewer after realizing his other half couldn’t answer questions in English. The two had chosen the spot as a neutral meeting site. “Vera is very good at it. She writes Russian in a way that gets translated into English in a simple way.”
The two met through a site called PenPal World, which claims over 2 million members, that tries to connect new friends across borders. But they are hardly the only couple in the game.
Like an immigrant
“We have used Google Translate but only for minor communication issues. He’s everything but native to English so we’ve only utilized it when there was a Hebrew or English word that didn’t have a direct translation to see what Google’s ‘opinion’ was,” American ex-pat Lacie Larschan, Content Marketing Manager at WalkMe, tells Geektime about her relationship with a Tel Aviv native. “But in the larger picture of our relationship, I’ve used translate a ton while adjusting to life in Tel Aviv. So in an indirect way, it has played a small role in our relationship because it was a tool to help my move.”
Sometimes two immigrants living in a new country who were born in separate places also have to pick it up as they navigate their trilingual world. The app has improved over time, but still has some quirks to work out on minor things.
“On occasion,” Eliyahu Speiser, who is head of paid digital marketing at Jerusalem-based DriveHill Media, tells us when communicating with his wife in French, “and since I understand grammar more or less from high school Spanish classes I am able to fix up the mess Google translate spits out.”
He didn’t misspeak. He uses his schooling in Romance language Spanish to fix Google’s fudges in other Romance language French. The main issue the program still has is colloquial speech, even in widely-spoken European dialects which Google Translate has spent the most time perfecting. “So [I] translate and make a few changes here and there, and … voila!”
There have been some more prominent cases that have caught the tech world’s imagination.
“Seven months after we met in Haiti, we finally saw each other in person again . . . He could speak enough for us to have simple conversations over dinner.” the Washington Post’s Mac McClelland wrote about her husband Nico Ansel. Alphabet’s chairman Eric Schmidt talked about their story at SXSW 2015, a tale of an American reporter covering Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake and French UN peacekeeper helping the country’s recovery effort.
“He knew so much more English than the first time we’d met. All learned from our interactions. All translated by Google.”
That first time, he had absconded from his unit for a few hours several nights in a row to meet her at her hotel. That running off nearly got him demoted, so he tried to tell her they couldn’t meet again under such circumstances. She panicked, taking his mechanically translated French to mean they should never see each other again at all. She cursed him out.
“I wrote back, calling him a swear word. He responded immediately. The swear word ‘in google translate is not very good word!’ he said, alarmed. ‘I want (emphasis the author’s) see you again, I want talk with you again. . . . It’s not the problem!'”
An untested frontier for dating apps?
There haven’t been any startups that have taken a substantial crack at getting people using different tongues to cross paths (or better put, to get people to cross tongues).
This might be the next great frontier as real-time translation makes headway. Waverly Labs made waves earlier this year when they unleashed their real-time translation earbud Pilot on Kickstarter. With all the comparisons to Star Trek, few picked up on the possibility their utility might not so much be in Spock signing treaties with new members of the Federation as much as it was a chance to mimic Captain Kirk meetin’ and greetin’ the ladies from different worlds.
And what was Waverly Founder’s motivation to invent this revolutionary piece of equipment? You guessed it, he met a woman. Kirk FTW.
It remains to be seen if wearable and app enthusiasts will prove technology can open up a whole new world of romance for the world’s non-polyglots. What is for sure is that technology is helping get globetrotters’ feet wet and getting us to think of a truly exciting new era in intercultural relationships.