u_topn picture
rub_wc picture
Weird News is Good News

How our eccentricities can bring us together.

Entertainment Asylum

Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't.

Terminal Care

Grave sites aren't what they used to be.

Making the eSCENE

Must fiction be print to be hip?

The Living and the Dead

An in-depth look at death in America reveals how stories become the salves of the living.

The Wings of Perseus

The modern-day world of the ancients.


A new Internet guide with venerable roots.

Bureaucrats with 'Tude

The IRS tries to lighten up. It's a bit of a strain.

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.
December 18, 1997

AltaVista Translation Services The news is only a week old that AltaVista -- one of the most popular search engines on the Internet -- is now testing a free online translator, capable of converting Web documents from and into English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. Word has traveled fast, however, and the site's managers are reporting that the beta version of their translator is already receiving ten requests per second, twenty-four hours a day. Clearly this is something big -- and the creators of AltaVista know it. They claim to have "broken the Internet language barrier."

Online foreign-language dictionaries have been popular for some time now (see our previous Web Citation on the topic), but the AltaVista translation service is more than just definitions and derivations. Whole passages of text can be translated in seconds: users need only paste or type in text to be translated, and can even simply provide the URL of the Web page in question. AltaVista is making this service available in every display of search results; the word "translate" appears after each document AltaVista Translationsummary and allows readers to view a page's contents in any of the six languages mentioned above. (Long pages need to be translated in pieces, as the translator can only handle a few paragraphs at a time.)

The translations themselves, obviously computer-generated, are far from perfect: the language is often stilted, the vocabulary sometimes limited, and the grammar invariably idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, the system works -- what once may have been gibberish becomes, for those with a little patience and a sense of humor, comprehensible. Take, for example, the opening of a recent story in the French newspaper Le Monde about the environmental summit in Kyoto, likely to be meaningless for those who speak no French:

Après avoir prôné une stabilisation des émissions de gaz nocifs, les Etats-Unis semblaient prêts, mercredi, au dernier jour de la conférence de Kyoto, à signer un accord sur une réduction, de 6 à 9 %, des émissions de gaz polluants. Pressé par les Européens, qui ont présenté un front uni, Washington est désormais prêt à accepter un objectif de réduction, mais tente d'obtenir un mécanisme de "permis à polluer". En achetant ces permis à d'autres pays sur un "marché des droits à polluer", les Etats-Unis pourraient ainsi "respecter" l'objectif fixé par la conférence, sans trop réduire leurs émissions de gaz à effet de serre. C'est la détermination européenne à obtenir un accord sur la réduction qui a fait plier Washington, consacrant l'émergence d'un nouveau pôle politique face à la puissance dominante américaine.
The AltaVista translation, however, gets the gist across quite well, even if the results are a bit peculiar:

After having preached a stabilization of the harmful gas emissions, the United States seemed ready, Wednesday, at the last day of the conference of Kyoto, to sign an agreement on a reduction, from 6 to 9 %, polluting gas emissions. **time-out** press by the European, which have present a face link, Washington be from now on ready to accept a objective of reduction, but try to obtain a mechanism of "licence to pollute". In buy these licence with some other country on a "market of right to pollute", the United States can thus "respect" the objective fix by the conference, without too reduce their emission of gas with effect of greenhouse. It is the European determination to obtain an agreement on the reduction which made fold Washington, devoting the emergence of a new political pole vis-a-vis to the American dominant power.
These are the infant sputterings of a new kind of communication; increased fluency and elegance of expression will inevitably follow. In the meantime, this is still a practical tool, perfectly suited for those interested in scanning international newspapers, or for those whose AltaVista searches turn up, say, rogue but perhaps interesting pages in Portuguese or Spanish.

The Internet has until now been divided by distinct linguistic barriers, but with the advent of online translation, these barriers are sure to fall away -- particularly as other Internet services start competing with AltaVista in the translating game. How will AltaVista stay out in front? Rumor has it that they're already thinking about Chinese.

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search

Click here