By Philip O’Connor
ZHANGJIAKOU, China – Businesses at the Beijing Olympics are getting around the language barrier by using high-tech apps and a smartphone-like device to translate from Mandarin Chinese and keep the tills ringing.
Though China’s “zero COVID” policy has stopped the influx of sports fans who would normally be cheering on their favourites, there are still thousands of athletes, coaches, journalists and technicians in China with money to burn.
“In the past few days, we have had more customers, and we’ve relied on this smartphone to translate when communicating with customers,” ice cream shop assistant Wang Jianxin told Reuters.
He did so by speaking into a smartphone and the device quickly translated his words before reading them back in a soft female voice.
With staff and volunteers often wearing masks and visors, communication can be difficult, and Mandarin has little in common with languages like the English, German, Norwegian, French and Russian spoken by many Olympic competitors.
Thankfully, help is at hand in the form of devices like the iFLYTEK Jarvisen, an artificial intelligence (AI) smart translator developed in China.
“I thought the app worked very well, it seemed to work perfectly. She (the waitress) answered, it said the same thing I said,” Team USA media attache Nicki Hancock told Reuters after ordering lunch at the Green Dragon restaurant.
Manager Lu Juanli has seen a few raised eyebrows as guests have received unexpected menu advice, with “mushroom” being translated as “fungus” among other anomalies.
“Some of our dishes have rather colourful names, so there are some inaccuracies in the translations, which makes customers rather interested. It’s very funny,” she said.
Non-Mandarin speakers use marker pens to highlight the dishes they want on the plastic menus, and verbal communication is done through a translation device.
Though the apps and devices are working well for many, there are still things that get lost in translation.
“Once we had an experience when we wanted ‘cow milk’,” German journalist Frank Schneider explained at the ice cream parlour where Wang works.
“But the English ‘cow’ was understood as ‘cough’, which led to some confusion — people here are most afraid of corona (COVID-19) and coughing is one of the symptoms. (But) all in all, it works pretty well,” he added.