“Animal translation” generates media buzz — does it work?

Pet care would probably be a lot simpler if we could translate a simple “meow” into human language with the same ease as translating between two languages like English and German with machine translation (MT).

Recently, efforts in artificial intelligence (AI)-powered “animal translation” have garnered attention from the mainstream media, featuring in prominent publications like The New York Times and The Daily Beast. From naked mole rats to whales, all sorts of MT-like programs have been developed to help humans better understand their animal counterparts, but there’s still quite a long way to go before we’re able to accurately pinpoint the nuanced meanings underlying meows and purrs.

“A lot of translations are kind of creatively presented to the user,” a computer science researcher told The New York Times in a recent article about an app that uses AI to help cat owners understand their pet’s utterances. “It’s not pure science at this stage.”

The app MeowTalk attracted media attention last month for its creative efforts to personify a cat’s meows, giving pet owners a look into their cat’s social and emotional preferences. Though its accuracy is admittedly questionable, the app does give a bit of character to otherwise indecipherable meows. Recent developments in AI have made it possible to train models using animal utterances to mimic MT — while these endeavors can certainly shed some light on how animals communicate, to call them translations might be a bit of a stretch. 

That’s because animals and humans communicate in significantly different manners, making a true “translation” nearly impossible, at least with the amount of knowledge we currently have on animal communication systems. Animals are indeed capable of using sounds to communicate certain messages, however linguists generally agree that this form of communication does not constitute the same level of precision and complexity of human language.

For instance, while a whale might make a specific sound to alert others of nearby danger, this vocalization is unlikely to communicate the specifics of said danger. On the other hand, humans have grammar and vocabulary that allow them to state where the danger is coming from, what it looks like, and what kind of damage it could do.

While a corpus of annotated animal vocalizations can be used to translate these utterances into somewhat barebones human language, apps like MeowTalk take several creative liberties to give the meows a more “human” air. It’s no Google Translate, but efforts to translate animal communication remain a worthwhile endeavor if only for their potential to teach us more about the ways in which animals communicate among themselves.

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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