The universal translator, fact or fiction?
Science fiction authors have long dreamed of the universal translator, an essential device for far-ranging travellers, offering practically instantaneous translation between any pair of languages. Thought to be first properly described in William Fitzgerald Jenkins’ novelette ‘First Contact’, and featuring in countless series and films, from Doctor Who to Star Trek, Men in Black, Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ and Adams’ ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, the device is ideally pocketable, somewhat discreet, and able to work absolutely anywhere in space and time.
Enter Pocketalk, a small voice translation device for 21st century Earth, which the mother-company, Sourcenext, has kindly sent me for free and invited me to review. So while we are still waiting on Elon Musk for holidays to Mars and beyond, let’s take a look at this device that suffices for 134 countries of the world’s total of 194, and 74 languages of the 100 languages with over 10 million first language speakers, that’s as much as 70% of the total world population. I mean, pretty much, Sourcenext, Japan’s number one software publishing house, has your holidays covered. If you’re going anywhere you don’t speak the local lingo, well, you can just reach into your pocket and talk.
Pocketalk: Press the button to automagically translate your speech.
Blinging gold or silver, racy red, or conservative black
Pocketalk, for the moment, comes in 4 colours, blinging gold or silver, racy red, or conservative black, and two different models, the smaller S model and the slightly larger W model I have for review, which includes a handy camera feature allowing you to see the almost instantaneous translation of any captured text, as well as an equally handy currency converter. Both models will fit not only in your pocket, but also, to give you an idea, in a pack of cards or a packet of cigarettes. More practically, at less than 80 grams, they can be worn comfortably around your neck, with a through-hole on the device body, though, unfortunately, not a lanyard included in the box.
Pocketalk: Various handy features are available, such as a camera that will translate printed text and a currency converter.
What is included is an embedded SIM, allowing the device to phone home and fetch your almost instantaneous translations from the company’s AI-powered machine translation service. Quite what backend translation service is used isn’t clear, but the provided translations are certainly comparable to the heavyweight players in the machine translation sphere, such as Google Translate and Microsoft Translator. The SIM will draw down as much data as you need for free in those 134 countries that are covered, and here lies the major advantage of a dedicated device such as this, rather than simply an app on your phone.
No roaming, no worries!
Though, in Europe, we are now spoilt by free data roaming throughout member states, charges will soon rack up elsewhere, or roaming may not even be available at all. Pocketalk’s embedded SIM, however, will automatically connect to a country’s services for free, without any additional contract or outlay. That is for the first two years after purchase anyway, after which you can prolong or buy back into Sourcenext’s data connection service across the same 134 countries for around 50 Euros a year, or rather add your own Micro SIM to the empty SIM drawer. It can also piggy-back on any Wi-Fi network, including your phone’s hotspot, and via Bluetooth too.
So how does it work? To find out, we took it on road-test to France, the problem being two-fold. First, that the whole family already speaks a decent level of French, author included, the second that we could just use Google Translate on our mobes instead, if we wanted to. So here comes the opportunity to underline what I believe to be the real unique selling points of the Pocketalk, apart from the obvious fact that, unlike us, you can use it for a language you have no prior knowledge of.
Take a break
The first unique selling point for me is that you can take a break from your all-purpose, all-encompassing, all-consuming cellular device. Just shove Pocketalk in a dusty drawer until your next holiday, yank it out as you snap closed your suitcase, and sling it comfortably around your neck while you hail a taxi for the airport. No need to impulse-buy a bilingual dictionary together with a stick of gum and today’s newspaper, before you rush to your gate.
Left in a dusty drawer, it’s possible you forgot to charge your trusty Pocketalk, but not too much of a worry here, as if you have a modern computer, phone or other electronic device, there’s a good chance of you already having a handy, industry-standard, no-need-to-see-if-it’s-the-right-way-up USB-C connector cable, or you can buy one duty-free, and plug-in at MacDo’s.
The world is your oyster
When you arrive at your destination and hop into a alien taxi, wallet in one hand, hand-luggage in the other, you will feel the reassuring light touch of Pocketalk against your chest. No need to fumble in the depths of your bag for your phone, and then poke around its app drawer for just the right app. Simply press Pocketalk’s jolly, illuminated front button, choose your language with a deft click, swipe and another click on the radiant colour touchscreen, and then press and hold the physical button once again to speak. On doing so, your speech will be automagically translated into a something your driver will probably not blink twice at before putting his foot to the metal.
Then, the world truly is your oyster. Place your Pocketalk on your one-star hotel reception’s counter and it will translate back to you any rules, regulations and indications of the area’s most Instagrammable bars, restaurants and vistas. Want to buy some souvenirs for your niece or nephew? Just stretch your Pocketalk towards your kindly shop-assistant for any assist you might need. Stuck with what to order at an ideogram-laden vending machine? Take a snap with the camera, and easily choose whatever ramen takes your fancy. Meet a local over a couple of beers? Slide your Pocketalk over like a hockey puck, and get more intimate, much more quickly than you would by using sign language alone.
Lost in translation
Plus it’s fun. Let’s face it, automatic translators are prone to making many mistakes – that’s why I still have a job as a translator – and those mistakes can be pretty embarrassing at times when it comes straight from your own mouth. But, here, you’ve always got the device to blame, it’s obvious to everyone that it’s the machine and it’s AI that’s doing all the work and is ultimately responsible. You’ve got a chance to try another turn of phrase. And if something worked well before, all you have to do is swipe down from the top of the screen to, amazingly, access the last up to 10,000 translations, of which you can favourite up to 500.
Pocketalk: Swipe down to access previous translations, and add them to your favourites.
Pocketalk’s interface is simple and intuitive, perfect for grampies and nannies, just as it is for little hands and technophobes. And this is, for me, it’s second selling point. It does what it says on the can. Today’s mobile phones are the modern world’s Swiss Army Knife, but there’s still a time and a place for a one-job-one-tool, for a device that, although it has three buttons, including “Volume Up”, “Volume Down”, “Power On/Off”, you will generally only end up using the one on the very front, “Hold and Speak”.
Lost in the shady, labyrinthine backstreets of a bustling metropolis, I wouldn’t want my Mum to just hand over her phone for someone, purportedly offering directions, to speak into, when, in actual fact, it’s a gateway to all her bank accounts, emails, documents and intimate photos. Sure, losing your precious Pocketalk would be a bummer, but the incident would stop right there.
So it can be particularly useful in stressful situations, as well as emergencies, as proven in February 2020’s COVID outbreak on the quarantined ‘Diamond Princess’ cruise ship, when, in response to an appeal by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Pocketalk’s maker, Sourcenext, donated a number of the devices to help ease communication between the 2,666 panicking international cruise vacationers and the local health authorities and medical practitioners.
This is where Pocketalk really comes into its own. In Europe, despite our many languages, we have the luxury of many similar sounding words and a fairly decent level of basic common Globlish. When you are in a very far-flung foreign country, and in a fix, you can’t count on being able to decipher the syllables of widely shared Latin words from the wall of speech you are faced with, or guarantee that people can and are willing to speak a bit of English. So, particularly when it comes to West meets East, or East meets West, Pocketalk has your back.
Another nifty aspect, in such regard, is Pocketalk’s role-playing feature, which includes a range of common travel scenarios, such as an air hostess asking you whether you want the meat or vegetarian menu, or someone giving you directions. Unlike all the other features of Pocketalk, this actually gets you to directly practice speaking the target language yourself, just as if you were having a real conversation, and if you mispronounce a word, the role-playing AI will get you to repeat and try again. It will also display the text of the conversation turns, and you can click on the text to translate it.
This is a great didactic tool, but, unfortunately, in my device, I only had the option of practising Chinese. Clearly, I would have liked other languages too, but I guess this feature is just a taster of either future developments or some of the company’s other products, such as FluentWorlds and PerfectAccent, which offer similar subscription services. At the end of day, Pocketalk’s aim is rather to do the hard work of communicating for you, rather than have you do the hard work of actually learning a language.
Pocketalk: The Chinese/English role-playing feature has contains plenty of conversational travel scenarios.
So that’s about it. There’s a beta hands-free option, which, basically, relieves you from having to press the button, as it keeps its ear open to the conversation and automatically switches between one language and the other. There’s a cute ‘Medal’ section that awards you for things such as the number of languages you have translated between, and the number of countries you have actually visited. And there are frequent maintenance and improvement updates; I’ve had about ten or so since having the device.
All the fun of the family
Now, let’s come back to our experience of Pocketalk as a family. Naturally, in France it wasn’t of much use for us. And, being a linguaphile family, we would surely learn the basics for any trip to a country we currently don’t speak the language of, such as the Czech Republic or Greece, where we could also always fall back to basic English.
Certainly, we would love to visit Japan one day, and there it would make a lot of sense, as it would in China, where learning the basics of the language is a lot more demanding, and you can still meet many people with very little basic English. Indeed, the further your home and native language is from where you are in the world and the local language, the more Pocketalk becomes useful.
Pocketalk: Sometimes, we’ll prepare well in advance before making a trip, both culturally and linguistically. Sometimes, we’ll just up and leave spontaneously, in which case, Pocketalk might be especially useful! This is an excellent book btw ;-).
Another scenario where Pocketalk would be fun to use for us is whenever we are waiting around in an airport and our oldest daughter takes up on her habit of making friends with other kids that speak a variety of languages.
She also has and has had classmates at school that speak Chinese and Arabic, and using Pocketalk in class, if her school encouraged or allowed it, or the playground or park, would be an amusing way to stimulate a little cultural exchange, without them having the distraction of using a smartphone.
However, being not only linguaphiles but also techophiles, we would normally use our mobile phones for most of the above scenarios. The only exception, and real use case for us, is when we are visiting a country without a data plan in place. Hopping from one Wi-Fi network to the next is ok when you want to upload a snap to Facebook, but not when you want to secure a hotel for that same night; a situation we frequently find ourselves in.
Here for you Nanny
The other exception is Nanny. Pocketalk would make a great gift for my own mum, as, when in Rome, it would save her from ordering a very expensive “cappuccino molto, molto caro”, rather than a lightly caffeinated “cappuccino molto, molto chiaro”, and, when, in Granada, it would remind her not to use fragments of her French or Italian, or keep her from bursting into fits of laughter every time she tries to use the word for “red”, yes, that’s right, “rojo”!
For me, for you
Therefore, to conclude this review, Pocketalk is a handy, powerful, little device, especially if you fall into any of the following categories:
- You have a linguistically challenged parent or grandparent, or you admit to having your own difficulties or reservations.
- You just want to chillax and enjoy your holiday without the bother of verbs, conjugations and intonations.
- You are a frequent flyer busy racking up your multi-country miles.
- You don’t want to always be reaching for your phone, or hunting down the next, elusive Wi-Fi hotspot.
- You are simply going to the most distant, darkest corner of the planet, where everything is strange and new, and that’s what the locals think of you too.
Then, Pocketalk is most definitely for you!
Disclaimer: Though I received a device for voluntary review, I have not been paid for this article, nor do I receive any income from links that may lead to its purchase. That said, if you like the sound of the device, you can buy it direct from the manufacturer, or easily find it on Amazon, Ebay or similar, for about 250 smackeroos or something less. I would recommend getting a cheap lanyard to use with it, or make your own!