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Where's My Universal Translator?
This gentleman clearly has no need for a universal translator. hjalmeida/iStock/Thinkstock

Today, linguae francae like English and French ease global diplomacy, and Swahili bridges communication gaps in eastern Africa. But nothing beats the possibility of a device -- or a small, telepathic fish or an uppity golden droid – capable of translating any tongue.

Assuming we ever achieve the gadget, it will likely create as many humiliating moments as it prevents, at least at first. Some languages differ so dramatically in structure and idiom, and retain such culturally rooted words and phrases, that they resist translation even by experts. Nor is translation a neutral act; some Muslims, for example, believe the Quran cannot or should not be translated from Arabic [source: Leaman].

Tech companies and defense contractors, sensing the business potential of universal communication, remain undaunted. Google claims that its Translate app can handle more than 70 languages using voice or text, and that its Goggles app can decipher photographed menus. A Microsoft prototype creates spoken translations in the user's own voice. Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency has a robot called Broad Operational Language Translation (BOLT) that will bolster its interpretations via visual and tactile cues. Several more years likely will pass before programs can do more than word-for-word or phrase-for-phrase translations, however [sources: Bilton; DARPA; Dillow; Google; Microsoft].