Genie, yes. Genius, maybe not.

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Genie, yes. Genius, maybe not.


Before writing this column I was struck with writer’s block. But as I voiced my complaints to the empty room, I heard a woman’s voice say in fluent English, “I should write something again today? It’s a worry.”

Surprised, I said out loud in Korean, “If anyone has a good idea, please tell me.” Then came the immediate response in English: “If there is a good idea, please tell me.” Without thinking, I uttered, “That’s amazing,” and instantly my words were translated into English and read aloud.

Yes, you guessed it. I’m referring to GenieTalk, the automatic and very useful Korean-English, and vice versa, translation app made by the Korean government using indigenous technology. It can bridge the gap between non-English-speaking Koreans and foreigners at home, while also serving as a great help when traveling abroad.

According to a researcher at the Electronics and Telecommunication Research Institute (ETRI) who was involved in developing the app, it can automatically translate more than 80 percent of conversations as it can process over 270,000 Korean words and 65,000 English words. The ETRI claims it is 15 percent more accurate than Google Translator, which is considered the leader in its field. The ETRI plans to add six more languages by 2018, including Japanese, Chinese and Spanish.

However, when I used GenieTalk, it clearly had problems recognizing my voice. I speak in a low tone and, perhaps at times, not so clearly. When I said, “Preparations for the festival are in progress,” it translated this as, “Preparations for the festival are poor,” thus giving a response that does not do justice to the intended nuanced message.

Since few people speak as clearly as a news anchor whose statements presumably would be translated more correctly, there is still a long way to go before a translation machine can perfectly satisfy our needs. But it is only a matter of time. At the current rate of technological development, we can expect soon to have at our disposal an interpretation application that gets it right every time.

While some may assume this will obviate the need to learn foreign languages, I disagree. Learning another language is more than simply acquiring the linguistic skills to write and speak. We also learn about the culture of the country and people that speak it. K-pop fans abroad, for example, are learning Korean not just so they can speak the language, but so they can get closer to the people and learn more about the culture and spirit that produced this hot new musical genre. Mastering a language expands one’s access to the spiritual and cultural context in which it thrives. GenieTalk may be a useful and amazing tool, but it cannot replace the benefits of learning another language entirely.

I remember speaking into the app a little later, “Your help is appreciated. Thank you. Now I can write today.” In response it said: “The fun is appreciated. There is thanks to this no ball today.”

Talk about lost in translation.

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok

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