Language translation software: Words for words

J.B. Miles

Makers of language translation software offer examples on their Web sites of how their programs work. Clockwise from top left, Babylon Ltd.'s Babylon-Pro, Etaco Inc's Dictionary Pack for Pocket PCs, Qvadis Corp.'s Lexica for Palm OS devices, and Softissimo's Reverso Pro.

Language translators let you speak in many tongues, but choose your words carefully

Who hasn't made a silly mistake while fumbling for a word in a foreign language?

I failed to impress a young Mexican lady years ago by telling her in Spanish that I was 'embarazado' by the antics of intoxicated Americans pouring out of Tijuana bars on the Fourth of July. She agreed sympathetically, and then giggled at my blunder. Embarazado doesn't mean embarrassed, she explained. It means pregnant.

More recently, I struggled with an instruction manual written by a Chinese writer for installing a PC Card made in Taiwan. The instructions, ostensibly in English, contained so many syntactical errors that they were Greek to me.

Language translation software could have helped a lot in both cases. And in e-commerce, language translation is becoming indispensable.

The software works by automatically generating translations of text'including letters, reports, articles and even Web sites'from a source language to a target language. Its users range from large corporations and government agencies to researchers, academics or journalists needing to communicate in multiple languages simultaneously.

Travelers with a Palm, Pocket PC or other handheld device can use it to order room service, find a restaurant, haggle for an antique or extend a friendly greeting to a native.

Although they vary in sophistication, most language translators work similarly. They all contain a translation engine, language dictionaries and a user interface.

Translation engines. Sophisticated translation products contain engines such as Translation Experts Ltd.'s NeuroTran or Softissimo's Reverso that employ artificial intelligence rules to translate, sentence by sentence, the meaning of documents from one language to another. They understand subject, predicate and object orders in a sentence. They can analyze source text, apply linguistic rules and generate translations based on these rules.

Looking it up

Less sophisticated translators used in PCs and handheld devices require a less powerful translation engine but provide satisfactory results for general users.

Dictionaries. All language translation software uses dictionaries that consist of words, phrases and idioms within a particular language. The most sophisticated dictionaries also include other linguistic information such as morphology, semantics and syntax to help the software arrive at a satisfactory translation.

Most of the products listed in this guide have multiple dictionaries. Some manufacturers will bundle specific language dictionaries according to geography'for instance, Central European, Asian, Arabic'or use, such as those from Pacific Rim nations.

The dictionaries supplied with the best language translators can administer up to millions of words, terms or expressions in either direction of a translation set. Manufacturers can also bundle optional specialized dictionaries in many languages for specific fields of information.
Interface. As with any software, interfaces used by language translators are especially important. Users should be able to easily locate both source text and its translation, even on a handheld device.

Babelfish, designed by Systran Software Inc. and available for free as part of the AltaVista search engine, contains a window for entering source text, and a menu for locating the language you wish it to be translated into. Press 'Go' and you find the translation in a window above the original.

The interfaces coming with translation software for PCs should integrate easily with Microsoft Windows applications, often via pop-up menus. Language translator interfaces should also provide easy access to personalization tools, such as those for customizing dictionaries.

Not even the best of these tools will translate perfectly right out of the gate, or right off the bat, or right out of the box (try translating those idioms into another language).

But if you keep your sentence simple, with the emphasis on key words like food and restaurant, you'll probably get where you want to go with a minimum of handwaving and without offending anybody. Even without being 'embarazado.'

The first rule of successfully using a language translator is to keep it simple. Your original text should be simple and clear. Avoid ambiguity. Keep your sentences short.

Next, make sure your grammar and spelling is correct. Translation software analyzes, but doesn't understand, the structure of a sentence the way you do, so you can come up with some amazing and silly translations if your grammar is off.

Avoid typos, and respect punctuation. If you are translating from, say, French to English, make sure you use the correct accent marks.

If the information you are concerned with is very important and you are unsure of the translation provided by your software program, look for a live human being to check the results. Ultimately, only a human brain can successfully deal with all the nuances and subtleties of language. For critical tasks, consider a high-end customizable product with online connections to human translators for fine-tuning documents, or even a higher-end version of the personal software you are using. Babylon Ltd. makes a client-server version called Babylon-Corporate that is much more ambitious in scope that its personal version, Babylon-Pro.

LogoMedia Corp.'s Translate Express is a highly useful but scaled-down version of Translate, which provides very large volume translations and a gateway to the company's online translation services. Systran Personal 2.0 is the personal version of Systran's higher-end Professional Standard, Premium and Enterprise translation products.

If you are a researcher seeking translations of entire Web sites written in foreign languages, an inexpensive product such as QuickWiz Technologies Corp.'s Easy-lingo might work, but Softissimo's more expensive high-end Reverso Pro 5.0 certainly will. Some products such as UnionWay International's AsianSuite X2 actually enable the creation of multilingual e-business Web sites, but this type of software generally goes beyond the scope of the products listed here.

Some products such as Systran Personal 2.0 and Translation Experts' PalmTran 2.0 provide instant translations of e-mail messages; a very useful feature in today's global economy, and a few, such as AsiaTech Inc.'s Dr. Eye Translation EC Win 1.0, also include voice input. If you engage in international commerce or just want to know how much your meal in Rome really costs, look for a package with a currency exchange rate calculator.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at [email protected].


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