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Finding A Pedicure In China, Using Cutting-Edge Translation Apps

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Finding A Pedicure In China, Using Cutting-Edge Translation Apps

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Finding A Pedicure In China, Using Cutting-Edge Translation Apps

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The human voice has been manipulated by technology for over a century. And we have two stories about machines and the spoken word on this week's ALL TECH CONSIDERED. First, let's go to China, where NPR's Aarti Shahani recently visited for work. While she was there, she decided to get a pedicure. Her search became quite an adventure. Aarti doesn't speak Chinese, but she does know how to use her smartphone.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Google and Baidu, which is China's Google, have these translation apps. You speak into them, they listen, and then they translate. They do it in writing on the screen and out loud using your phone's speaker.

Will he put on the meter for the taxi?

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAHANI: From a hotel concierge in the city of Zhangzhou puts me in a cab. It's 10 p.m., and the internet says there's a late-night pedicure salon open.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAHANI: Don't worry about it. It's OK.

The driver drops me at a crowded corner, but I don't see the salon. And I can't read the numbers on the buildings - it's all Chinese - so I walk into a store and go up to heaven inside. I shove the address and my phone in her face, and a small miracle happens.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAHANI: She speaks slowly and clearly, and the app begins to transcribe. I read the words on my screen.

Go forward 10 meters and turn right.

This is mind-blowing. Go forward 10 meters is so specific - something you could never get with just body language.

(Foreign language spoken).

I thank her, butchering the word for thank you, and set off.

I see something with feet. Yes.

Only it's not quite what I had in mind. Turns out the pedicure salon is actually a dingy hole in the wall, kind of like a dive bar. Aging men are paying to get their toenails scraped and their enormous calluses pounded down. I decide to stick around because, hey, it's an authentic local experience.

For one hour, what is the cost?

Trouble is my translation apps keep crashing.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

SHAHANI: And I get this broken nonsense back with a key word repeated.

(LAUGHTER)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Oh, your money is certainly not the same.

SHAHANI: Just give money (laughter).

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Give money.

SHAHANI: Money - the lady wants me to pay 88 yuan - a little less than $13. She puts me in a torn faux leather recliner, right across from a drunk guy who's shouting nonstop and throws his complimentary green tea to the floor.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAHANI: This is my Chinese, quote-unquote, pedicure.

MACDUFF HUGHES: Well, that actually raises a good issue, which is that there's a lot more to translation than mapping one word to another.

SHAHANI: Macduff Hughes is translation chief at Google. He's in charge of the main app I used in China. I went to his office in Mountain View, Calif., and turns out - he's more critical of the app than I am. He wants the translation tool to not just fixate on grammar, syntax, diction. He wants it to pay attention to intent and cultural differences.

HUGHES: You can imagine that in - if, in addition to translating the word pedicure from English to Chinese, we could show you some pictures of Chinese pedicure salons, that might have been more helpful to you.

SHAHANI: Before harping too much on what went wrong, let's turn to chapter two of my quest, which takes place in Shanghai. I started a shop with the word pedicure in English on the door and nail polish in the window. It felt like a safe bet.

What is your name?

I use the app to ask the pedicurist.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAHANI: Ju-wen Zu is patient, curious, willing to talk with me using this strange new tool. It also helps that the app behaves and the store is quiet. She puts my feet in water that's the perfect temperature, and we chat, just like in salons back home. I learned that Ju-wen's parents are farmers. She's 36 and followed her big sister to Shanghai. She met her husband here and has a teenage boy. I ask her life in the big city is hard or easy. She explains.

JU-WEN ZU: (Foreign language spoken).

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Shanghai is a difficult place to exist because the housing is very expensive. Rent is also high.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

SHAHANI: Then we have this seamless exchange.

How much does it cost - your rent?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Foreign language spoken).

ZU: (Foreign language spoken).

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: At least about 3,000 per month.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

SHAHANI: How much do you make every month?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Foreign language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

ZU: (Foreign language spoken).

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Eight thousand or so.

SHAHANI: I get personal. She gets personal and asks the question women around the world love to ask each other.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Do you have a boyfriend?

(LAUGHTER)

SHAHANI: This experience strikes me as profound. While political leaders like President Donald Trump talk about erecting walls, closing borders, technology is marching in the exact opposite direction, knocking down the most fundamental wall that divides us - language. Technology is enabling this little foray into pedicure diplomacy.

ZU: (Foreign language spoken).

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: You are awesome.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAHANI: You are awesome.

Ju-wen Zu and I talk for about an hour, which it turns out is a world record of sorts. Google says the vast majority of conversations on their app are just three to four exchanges. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Shanghai.

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