If technology is truly meant to bring us all closer together, then recent translation services are doing their part to make the world a smaller place.

Flashy items like NEC’s translation glasses and the new iPhone application that can convert text from pictures will get plenty of attention once they’re tested and widely distributed, but in 2009 a number of other innovations have already begun to affect how Japan’s residents interact with the world and each other.

Google has certainly been at the forefront. Their “Translate this page” links are now built into Japanese search results, and the dedicated Translate application has made huge strides in turning select phrases, web pages and PDF documents into your preferred tongue. Google Reader has opened the blogosphere even further with the option to change RSS feeds into English or other languages. Twitter, the year’s other web darling, continues to grow in popularity here, and the Tweetie iPhone application‘s translate function is helping more non-Japanese speakers to keep better track of the country’s 140-character community.

These services are far from perfect, however.  Complex grammar and slang can still render Google’s translations nearly useless, and the casual nature of tweets and their abbreviated format can make the converted text unreadable. But it’s important to keep in mind that these services are all in the early stages, meaning that by this time next year the internet could be awash in global chit chat. One possible silver lining to today’s algorithmic inadequacies could be the reassurance that computers have not yet rendered humans redundant. Translation and interpretation by real people (especially in niche fields) is still a huge business.

That business may be about to expand further, thanks to Japanese start-ups like My Gengo, a web-based service emphasizing what they call “casual translation“: shorter, more personal text as opposed to, say, massive contracted projects for corporate and governmental clients. They also started offering translated Tweets from Japanese celebrities and are planning new services to help read and publish in non-native languages.

Because of the low barrier of entry, services like My Gengo may have a larger cultural impact than sci-fi movie props like the translation glasses. Politicians and the wealthy will always be able to afford language assistance – human or otherwise – but a true cultural shift could happen once the world’s housewives and high-school students have access to the same services.

Japanese blogger Chikirin points out that now only “important” information is translated: headline news, business information, political agendas, etc. But what would happen if everything was automatic? What if a search for a new way to cook chicken & tomatoes produced recipes never seen in your language? What new audiences and alliances will form when every Web page and chat room in the world is instantly translated? Just a few years ago, questions like this would have simply been fodder for third-drink futurists at a Silicon Valley cocktail party, but it won’t be long before chatting across the language divide – in real-time – is a reality.

And when that day arrives, I’ll ask: What goes well red bell peppers and shrimp?

ALSO: I want to hear from you. How do you think translation and interpretation changed in 2009? What other innovations should be mentioned? I’d really like to update this post with your input, so drop us a line via the comments.

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