If you’ve ever traveled to a foreign country and you didn’t speak the language, you probably had your share of conversations that got lost in translation. Language barriers often prevent shared understanding. A new installation in an exhibit at 21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo flips the idea on its head.
The interactive installation “Found in Translation,” produced by the design studio TheGreenEyl with Google Creative Lab and Waseda University associate professor Dominique Chen, uses data visualization and other audio-visual features to show what different languages have in common—and to celebrate what makes each language unique.
The installation features a single podium surrounded by large screens. Upon entering, the visitor answers a prompt. Their answer is then pushed through Google Translate, and audio of the sentence begins to feed through speakers in 24 different languages. Then, the sentence appears as a data visualization on screens throughout the room. Finally, the sentence splashes on screens across the room in large, all-caps type. It’s a poetic way to show that we aren’t so different after all.
The data visualization component, which shows the sentence you just spoke as colorful, squiggly lines, uses machine learning to convey the semantic similarities between languages. The lines appear closest together where the individual words are most similar, and farthest apart where they’re the most dissimilar. (A full explanation of how this works requires more than you probably need to know about machine learning, but you can read the details here). They’re also color-coded by language family so the sentence you spoke, say, in English, will appear as one color, and the translated sentence, say in Japanese, will appear as another. Visual similarity depends on how much the two languages have in common, but the line graphs also offer a fascinating inside look at language structure overall—and how differing languages might have more in common than you’d think at first glance.
After the data visualizations fade from the screen, the visitor’s response appears written out in a rainbow of different colors and languages across the screens. Whereas the data visualizations capture the empirical similarities of language, the type treatments add a human touch—even in their clean, sans serif form, according to Richard The, creative director and partner of Studio The GreenEyl and the lead on this project. “It’s very much a typographic project where you see different writing systems from around the world, and at the same time it actually feels like a very human moment where you suddenly hear immediately how everybody would be speaking this word or sentence from around the world,” The says. “It’s a fascinating and warm moment.”
The installation was initially developed to run at the same time as the Tokyo Olympics in 2020—but when the COVID-19 pandemic put the world as we know it on pause, Found in Translation paused too. After The and his team spent months remotely setting up the installation because they couldn’t travel to Japan, the interactive installation is now on view in Tokyo through June 13.