Although software engineers and linguists have been working on ways to have computers interpret between languages for decades, most of what we have these says is far from perfect, as anyone who's tried a machine translation (MT) website can testify.
That could be about to change if claims from NEC in Tokyo that is has an accurate MT system for mobile phones are to believed.
The company says it has combined high-quality voice recognition with the ability to translate from a database of 50,000 Japanese words and 30,000 English terms, mostly connected with vacationing.
Most significantly, NEC has managed to get all the software running on a typical mobile processor and interpreting between Japanese and English without the need to connect to an online server of any kind.
Prototype for now
The system is currently in prototype, but the company expects to eventually have it commercialised, most likely in phones aimed at Japanese tourists travelling abroad.
After that, it surely can't be long before travellers worldwide give up tedious phrase books and carry their own equivalent of the Babel Fish wherever they go.