I hesitate to imagine how frustrating, awkward and even dull a recent family encounter would have been without the Google Translate app on my phone.
My wife and I met up and stayed with my father’s Russian-born cousins in Berlin last week. And since their English is marginal and the German I learned in college has rusted into near immobility after almost 40 years of disuse, we communicated mostly through the medium of nearly instantaneous online translation, which allowed for compound questions and sentence-length answers rather than clipped, guidebook phrases.
We also took frequent advantage of the free app’s feature that allows you to point your camera at a sign or a menu and see the words translated from one language to another.
It didn’t work perfectly. When I asked my first cousin once removed how many stories there were in his apartment building, the app had me asking him how many narrative accounts were in his apartment building — which, come to think of it, could be interpreted as a profound rhetorical question.
All of those who live here have within them thousands of stories …
But online translation has been around for only about 20 years. The pace of progress makes it inevitable that technology soon will make possible instantaneous, synchronous communication between people who do not share a common language, just as “Star Trek,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and other science fiction works have envisioned.
But already. Think of it. Before the January 2010 introduction of smartphone translation apps, you had to be a diplomat or other high dignitary to be accompanied at all times by a personal translator.
Just as you had to be a potentate or wildly self-indulgent plutocrat to have hundreds of books, years of family photos and nearly your entire music library always immediately at hand.
It was once my Thanksgiving week tradition to write a column citing all the ways in which most of us live better and have more opportunities and privileges than the pharaohs, emperors and mighty sovereigns of history.
Not to give short shrift to family, friends, good health, food, shelter, warmth, love, laughter and all else that traditionally gets a special nod on the fourth Thursday of November. But to add to that list other things we also tend to take for granted, such as no-lick stamps, surgical lasers, Gore-Tex and antibiotics.
I last wrote such a column in 2006, before the iPhone launched the smartphone revolution, before Netflix introduced online streaming, before Amazon offered the Kindle e-reader and before Airbnb debuted (all 2007); before free turn-by-turn phone navigation apps (2009), before the iPad (2010), before virtual assistants (2011); and before the Keurig for home use (2012).
Our experience with Google Translate has inspired me to append those items to my list of stuff that makes us the envy of antiquity’s kings, a list that has to start with indoor plumbing and electricity, automobiles, stoves, refrigerators, home laundry machines, air conditioning and water heaters.
It is not crass to remember to be grateful to be alive in the era of cordless drills, cruise control, digital photography, Velcro, no-iron dress shirts and no-stain khakis. Or to be glad about carbon monoxide and smoke detectors powered by 10-year batteries, bifocals without lines, affordable jet travel, email, texting and overnight package delivery.
Not to mention double-pane windows, programmable thermostats, electronic instrument tuners, Skype and FaceTime, podcasts, streaming music services, run-flat tires, earbuds and strings of holiday lights that don’t go dark when one of the bulbs burns out.
Suitcases on wheels alone ought to have their own holiday.
And let’s not forget open-road tolling, Dropbox, Bluetooth, variable-speed audio playback, super slo-mo, keycards, mobile pay, air bags, elevators, modern anesthesia and lifesaving vaccinations.
Also to humbly acknowledge the blessings of .pdf and DVRs, DVDs, HDTV, MRIs and ATMs. DSL, GPS, Wi-Fi, MP3, USB and, most astonishing of all, clean H20 at the turn of a tap.
Thirty-three years ago, Paul Simon sang “these are the days of miracle and wonder.” Despite the endurance of strife in the world, those words, in any of the more than 100 languages available in Google Translate, are more true now than ever.