IN one famous episode in the British comedy series Monty Python a foreign-looking tourist clad in an outmoded leather trenchcoat appears at the entrance to a London shop. He marches up to the man behind the counter, solemnly consults a phrase book, and in a thick Middle European accent declares, "My hovercraft ... is full of eels!"
Eventually the scene shifts to the Old Bailey courthouse, where the prisoner at the bar stands accused of intent to cause a breach of the peace for having published an English-Hungarian phrase book full of spurious translations. For example, the Hungarian phrase "Can you direct me to the railway station" is translated as "Please fondle my buttocks."
This episode is brought to mind by some recently available computer programs that claim to provide automatic translation between English and a number of other languages. Translation software that runs on mainframe computers has been used by government agencies for several decades, but with the advent of the Pentium chip, which packs the power of a mainframe into a desktop, such software can now easily be run on a personal computer. You can buy a program for translating in one direction between English and a major European language of your choice for as little as $29.95. But what has really brought machine translation, or MT, into the mainstream lately is two Internet sites that offer Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese translations free. Systran, a company that three decades ago pioneered the field under contracts from the U.S. government, provides its translator at babelfish.altavista.digital.com as part of AltaVista's Web site. ("Babelfish" is an allusion to a diminutive piscine character in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that, when inserted in the ear, provides instant translation of any language.) Babelfish the Web site lets you type in a block of text up to fifty words long, click on a button, and watch as, seconds later, a translation appears above your words.
The second company to offer its services free (at least for now) is Globalink, a major retailer of translation software that as this article went to press had just been acquired by Lernout & Hauspie. Globalink's online translator, Comprende, will exist in a different form under the new ownership. At www.lhs.com you can send E-mail or participate in a live multinational "chat" with translations to and from English.