Feb 07 2005

Web of Words: Online Translation Services

Published by at February 7, 2005 12:25 pm under CAT/MT,Foreign Language Instruction,Translation

English just about remains the prevalent language online, but making sense of some sites is tricky unless you’ve taken the time to learn a new language.

However, technology is on hand to help out with those moments when you find material online, in books and magazines or from far-flung friends or family that has you reaching for the language phrasebook.

Alternatively, there may be an important document from Europe or further abroad that you need to respond to quickly. Fear not, as the internet provides online language translators. It can even help you get on with things when you’re abroad if you have access to a handheld computer and know where to look.

Fishing for meaning
Babel Fish is the most famous online translator. Its name is taken from the novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, who in turn borrowed it from the Bible. The Babel Fish lived in people’s ears and translated languages from all over the universe into English for the book’s hero.

Surprisingly, given its reputation as the original translation site, Babel Fish seems to have been slightly outdone by an upstart. Once again Google’s translation service picks up where others have left off and, although it makes no great strides toward perfect English, it does at least manage to pick up on some of Babel Fish’s omissions…

Online translators should not be relied on to provide the exact meaning of foreign words and phrases, but they can give a good idea of the gist of the meaning and when the alternative is knowing nothing at all, it’s not exactly a risk.

Web of words
Many sites also provide the option to translate an entire web page from its native language into English. Altavista and Google both have a section where a web address can simply be entered into a box. From there it will automatically take you to a version of the site where all block text has been translated.

Again, expect varying results from this method and be aware that text in images will not be translated. The good thing about this is that any links you click on while looking at the translated site will also be translated into the language you requested.

If you’re looking for something a little more accurate, it is possible to buy software that considers the nuances of words and grammar to give a much better translation.

Try Systran as a starting point. The company provides the software that powers the Altavista site but also offers professional translation tools to home users. However, the company warns in its promotional literature that this software is mainly for getting the gist of what a document is trying to say and if you want to read or publish in any higher quality then a good degree of user input may be required.

Babylon Software
also offers translation tools for Windows…

A roving eye
There may be times when it is essential that you get a very accurate translation of a foreign document but you don’t want to fork out huge amounts of money on software that may not necessarily provide you with the perfect answer.

Sometimes having a human eye run over it is the only possible alternative.

Don’t worry if you don’t know anyone that speaks or reads Japanese, Arabic or Spanish, because there are websites that can provide you with this service at a reasonable price. One reliable site is TransAction which does the whole thing online if you wish, including getting a quote and receiving and delivering the requested documents.

You may think that to get a foreign document translated you will first have to type in all the text for the software to analyse, along with all those unusual grammatical and punctuation marks. Not so, as a scanner and optical character recognition software can take the strain here.

The software recognises the shape of letters by scanning them in; each scanned letter or symbol is then converted to the character, number or symbol it represents. Occasionally it will mistake a letter, especially if the print quality of the document is poor but this can be solved with a bit of common sense and a spell checker.

Of course, the optical character recognition software has to feature support for the language you want to translate from. Readiris Pro… recognises 104 languages while FineReader… understands up to 107.

Verbal dexterity
If you find yourself dealing quite a lot with foreign documents or speaking to people from other countries online, you may decide that you’re ready to take the plunge and learn the language. If so, there are numerous pieces of software that can help you out.

Linguaphone courses now come on CD-ROM and as downloadable software…

Wordace (available at Amazon) is another useful tool as it helps the user get to grips with the complexities inherent in speaking like the natives, as well as having hundreds of thousands of word translations and verb conjugations, some of the building blocks of language.

If you’re simply looking for useful phrases to help you get around when you’re in a country, try Phrasebase. It’s a simple-to-use site with a whole range of phrases in many languages that have been categorised into easy to understand areas. Simply click on an area, find the phrase you’re looking for and away you go. It’s much cheaper and easier than buying and using a phrasebook, if you have online access while you’re away.

You can also buy software for handheld computers that contains hundreds of useful phrases for holidaymakers, and many will actually read out the translation so you can perfect your pronunciation and impress the locals with your efforts. Mobilearn covers French, German, Italian and Spanish…

Handy tools
If you’re staying in a foreign country, accessing the internet may not be as easy as it would be at home. Even then, would you know how to ask where the nearest cyber-cafe was? At such times, having a handheld PC with translation software installed may be the perfect solution.

One company that specialises in such software is Ectaco. It provides a range of different applications that can be used on your Pocket PC, Palm and even some advanced mobile phones.

You can even purchase software that will take a phrase you speak, translate it and then speak it back to the person you are talking to. However, this is expensive and for less… you can get a more basic phrasebook with translation capabilities.

If you’re looking to keep costs down, there are some free versions available. One example is Pocket Translator from Innersky for Pocket PCs. The website provides easy-to-follow instructions to get it up and running. But as with most things, the free versions won’t provide the same depth or ease of use as those you pay for.

Everything becomes clear
If you’re simply looking to find a way to read foreign text, and all you need to know is the basic gist of what’s being said, then the internet is the perfect place to start looking. There are lots of online translation tools that can change a slab of text, or even an entire foreign website, into English but don’t expect to understand everything that comes back using this method.

If you’re looking for more detailed translation, expect to pay for it. Generally, the better the quality of translation, whether through software or translation services, the costlier it is.


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Of course, Linguistic Solutions breaks down language and cultural barriers through translation, interpretation, foreign language instruction and cross-cultural training.

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