Love in Any Language

Love in Any Language

By Jeanne Martinet



Because language barriers to romance are breaking down.

By Jeanne Martinet

You’re at a seaside café on the Italian Riviera. The morning sun sparkles on the water; the air is ambrosia. You notice a handsome stranger at the next table. You make eye contact. In a thrilling accent you can’t place, he comments on the weather being fine. His English is limited, but you smile at each other and exchange a few rudimentary remarks. He is from Cairo, on business. You are from New York, on vacation. He asks what you are doing later. You hesitate, but he seems so nice. Then, touching your arm, he says, “Would you like to have a bath with me?”

Insulted, you shake your head and leave.

If only one of you had been wearing the new Google Pixel Buds, on sale this month, you might have realized that what the stranger was trying to say was, “Would you like to go for a swim?” Touted by many as the real-life version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Babel fish, or Star Trek’s universal translator, the buds allow you to hear instant translations in your ear, in real time, between 40 languages. When paired with the Pixel 2 phone, the earbuds tap into Google’s voice-activated Assistant, and then Google Translate. All you have to do is touch one of the earbuds and say, “Help me speak Japanese,” and say a phrase in your language. The translate app speaks (and displays) the translation in Japanese on the phone. When the other person replies, you hear it in your ear, translated back into your language. It’s like having a personal interpreter in your head.

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Juston Payne, product manager for Google Clips, introduces the new Google Pixel Buds at a product launch event on Oct. 4 at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. 

Source Elijah Nouvelage/Getty

There are numerous global implications for this new technology — business, political, military, educational — but opening the doors to interlingual romance is certainly one of them. Dating “without borders” is on the rise. Exogamy is in. A recent survey from language-learning app Duolingo and dating app Happn found that 72 percent of Americans said they would relocate overseas for love. Sixty-four percent would date someone who does not speak their language. This was especially true for men: 71 percent said they would date someone who doesn’t speak English. 


What’s helping them is technology. Earlier this year, researchers Wendy Li and Amy Forbes at James Cook University in Queensland released results from a study that focused on intercultural marriages between Australian men and Chinese women between the ages of 30 and 75 living in north Queensland. Often, they found, conversations would start on WeChat, China’s equivalent of WhatsApp. “With that, the couples were able to engage in real-time conversation online,” says Forbes. “However, after they met and eventually moved to Australia, many couples used Google Translate for their daily interaction.”

We would have been lost without it.

LiLi Richardson, who uses Google Translate to communicate with her Bosnian husband

Google Translate itself is much better than it used to be. “In November 2016, Google introduced Neural Machine Translation,” says Andrew Tarantola, senior editor at technology blog Engadget. “It takes the entire sentence, looks at it holistically and then reorders the words to make it sound more like what a person would say. It’s much more conversational, and it’s more coherent.” According to Forbes, the GNMT is a leap forward not only because it is able to translate complete sentences but also because it’s a zero-shot system. That means it’s able to translate from one language directly into another without having to go through an intermediate language such as English.

But Google Translate is still far from perfect. “Language is culture-bound. This is something that Google Translate often fails to capture,” says Li. Tarantola agrees. “Google Translate is great for doing basic translations,” he says, “but it still has issues with idioms.” He cites an example from Spanish, where “Tienes mala leche,” which means “You have bad luck,” becomes, with Google Translate, “You have bad milk.”

Still, this technology constitutes a veritable romance revolution. With reduced language barriers, the global dating arena is rapidly expanding. American LiLi Richardson met her Bosnian husband online in November 2015. After exchanging hundreds of emails, Richardson visited him in Serbia in January, and they’ve been together ever since. Neither of them speaks the other’s language yet, so they use Google Translate, in Croatian and English. “We would have been lost without it,” Richardson says, “though it did almost cause a breakup a few times.” At times, the translator throws in swear words, she says. At others, while translating a paragraph, it just says “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” “Sometimes it even says the opposite of what one intends,” Richardson adds. 

Although Google Translate can now translate Icelandic into Swahili or Turkish into Sinhalese, the more frequently translated languages — with many more contributions to the database — produce better translations than others. There are also minor technical problems with the Google buds. “If you don’t have a good internet connection, or you are in a loud café, you might run into noise and connectivity issues,” says Tarantola. 

But it’s still much better than simply using Google Translate by itself, because you can watch facial expressions and body language while the translation is occurring. “The buds are my husband’s dream for an early Christmas present,” says Richardson.

What’s next? Will the technology advance to the point where the buds will work without a phone, and be able to automatically identify the language? According to Tarantola, this is not impossible. “It’s speculation, but I can see that happening within the next decade or so,” he says.

For straight urban women, at least, the Pixel Buds are reason to take heart. That notoriously too-small pool of datable single men is about to get beaucoup plus grand.