Technology April 2007

One-Button Translation

Newly sophisticated “machine translators” let you browse foreign Web sites in real time.
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Total (Onscreen) Immersion
A guide to some electronic gadgets that make navigating and learning a foreign language easier. By James Fallows

Thoughts on Writing This Column
James Fallows on what most surprised him about this topic and the biggest development that happened after press time.

Here is a truth I have finally accepted about foreign languages: Some are just impossibly hard. Before you reply “Duh,” in any language, let me explain an underappreciated aspect of the varying difficulties in learning languages, which in turn highlights the importance of some new computerized language tools.

Why are major Asian languages—Chinese, Japanese, Korean—so much harder for English speakers to cope with than, say, Spanish? By the U.S. State Department’s classification system, the “Category Four” languages, “super-hard” for English speakers, also include Arabic, but I know firsthand only about the East Asian ones and will use them as examples.

Chinese and Japanese are hard because of their writing systems, which take their own native speakers many years to master. (Not Korean, whose alphabet can be learned in a day.) Japanese is particularly hard because of its grammar, which has many inflections and distinctions that don’t exist in English. (For their part, Chinese speakers have trouble with some distinctions made in English. In spoken Chinese, the same word is used for both he and she. Even very accomplished Chinese speakers of English often mix the words up: “Your son is getting big; how old is she now?”) And in general, hard languages are hard because they offer so few shortcuts or entry points. I have never studied Portuguese, but I can guess what aeroporto means. The counterpart in Chinese is written chinese characters and pronounced jichang. In Japanese, chinese characters and kuko. No one who hasn’t studied them would have a clue.

The problem with hard languages, then, is that so much about them must be learned rather than recognized. That is where the latest versions of Internet-based translation tools come in. Two well-known products are Babel Fish, which is now owned by Yahoo, and the translation system offered as part of Google Language Tools. A Web search for the phrase online translation will turn up many other sites, like imTranslator.net and Worldlingo.com. Most of the sites are free; they generally are fast; and they all have similar limitations. But the best ones do something important, indeed revolutionary, to help make hard languages easier.

What the programs can’t do is obvious. They are strictly for written rather than spoken language. In practice they’re useful to English speakers only for bringing material from another language into English, not for going the other way. (I’m satisfied with a rough-and-ready English version of a Chinese page I’ve been looking at, but unless I’m desperate, I don’t want my words translated into Chinese in a similarly crude form.) As soon as you get tricky with them—having them translate a poem or do a round-trip conversion of a passage from English to Japanese and then back again—they make ridiculous errors. They are no substitute for real human mastery of language, and unless your expectations are realistic, you will find them frustrating rather than helpful.

Realistically, then, what they can do is create the shortcuts and entry points that hard languages normally lack. To return to the aeroporto example: Anyone who knows French, Italian, or Spanish could scan newspapers, product labels, ads, or Web pages in Portuguese and know what they’re about—not every nuance and detail, and with some big gaps and misunderstandings, but the main idea. Someone who can read Chinese can do something similar in Japan. The ability to tell, at a glance, what information is about—this is important, that can be ignored—is a crucial part of operating in any language. If you can do that, you can make progress; if can’t, you’re lost. At their best, the Babel Fish and Google tools (the two I’ve tried extensively) give you this scanning ability with material that would otherwise be impenetrable.

Most of the companies offer a standalone site where you can enter a passage from another language, like a selection copied from an e-mail or other document, and have it converted into English. For Babel Fish, it is tinyurl.com/qgtov; for Google, tinyurl.com/az86s. From those same addresses, you can also follow simple instructions to install buttons in your browser toolbar, which you can then click for an on-the-fly translation of whatever you are looking at online. With Google’s system, if you have a selection marked on a Web page, only that portion will be translated; if you don’t, the entire page is processed. After a delay of one to 10 (or more) seconds, depending on how much text is being handled and how fast your connection is, the material reappears in English. Babel Fish automatically registers what language the page is in and converts it to English; each of Google’s browser buttons is dedicated to translations from a specific language, so you need to install a button for each one. With Google, if you run your mouse over any sentence in the English version, the passage in the original language appears in a bubble to the side. This lets you track what the program has done and become a better translator yourself, if you care to. Babel Fish and Google each handle a range of hard and easy languages, though Babel Fish does not work with Arabic.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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