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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, [email protected] CENTER CRM Solutions

[August 10, 2000]

Breaking The Language Barrier

Several weeks ago, a friend e-mailed out a news item regarding an event that occurred in Norway. I made a joking response in my "reply to all" and ended with, "Does anyone speak Norwegian?" My friend responded to me with, "Det er ikke et problem. Vi alltid kan lre Norsk." Now though I hadn't seen my friend in a few weeks and he's an intelligent guy, I didn't imagine that he'd had time to become fluent in Norwegian since I'd seen him last. He pointed me to the site www.freetranslation.com, and much to my delight, my return e-mail to him asking, "How are things?" turned into, "Hvordan er ting?" The site is operated by a company called Transparent Language, Inc. and is offered to showcase the company's product, Enterprise Translation Server, which can be integrated into a company's Internet or communications applications as an add-on module. The product can also be tailored to a specific industry (i.e., computer, hotel and tourism, or medical), increasing the likelihood of correct translations for more complex words and phrases. Additionally, you can link your Web site to FreeTranslation.com, allowing your site visitors who speak French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese to view your site in their native languages.

Another site and family of products comes from a company called Smart Link Corporation, which sponsors a site that has similar capabilities to FreeTranslation's, though it also includes Russian (in case you're interested to see how your name looks in the Cyrillic alphabet.)

Additionally, you might wish to investigate Lernout & Hauspie's Power Translator family of products, which have been integrated with Microsoft Office 2000 to help preserve document formatting.

Machine translation, as it is called, works by identifying the source language text and using a set of language rules and a huge vocabulary database to come up with best translation for a bit of text. Sentences are translated in accordance with their full context. As anyone who ever took a foreign language in school leaned quickly, translating word-for-word will almost always result in complete gibberish.

I got to thinking about the applications of this type of service, whether it be free or licensed. Though the U.S. leads the way in e-commerce, with the British not far behind (though no language barrier there, unless you need a site that turns "organize" and "color" into "organise" and "colour"), the rest of the world is catching up. Nearly 80 percent of the Web's content is currently in English, but that number is beginning to drop quickly as more and more countries get wired. Many Western and Northern European e-shoppers speak English (though they'd probably prefer to conduct business transactions in their native languages), but a large percentage of the rest of the world does not.

Couple this with the fact that with our eyes closed, we can all recite the mantra that service is the only differentiator in the Web-enabled commerce arena. Give your customers what they want, which probably includes the ability to shop in their own language.

So, if I want to sell my Spiderman-themed, crocheted toaster covers online, and I think there is a huge market for Spiderman-themed, crocheted toaster covers in Germany, I'll need to hire contact center reps who speak German, right? Maybe right now, but what are the possibilities of machine translation in the future, when it becomes more precise? When it has the ability to determine what language a Web page or e-mail is written in, without the user having to specify the source language? (I don't know about you, but I certainly wouldn't be able to differentiate between, say, Danish and Icelandic just from glancing at the written languages.)

I can see the bugs in my plan, however. Language is an imprecise art. Think of the English phrase, "I read the book you asked me to read," which contains two different verb tenses and pronunciations in the same word: read. Very complex phrases will still require human intervention for a good long time, probably forever. For example, I was unable to get a correct German translation for "Spiderman-themed, crocheted toaster covers."

I speak French, so I can imagine the following scenario involving a customer service rep conducting an e-mail wrap-up of an online sale using only a translation program to alter his responses to the French language.

CSR's intended wrap-up: "If that will be all today, Madame Dupont, I'd like to compliment you on your excellent choices (choix). I am faxing you a form, and if you could just sign (signez) it for me, I'll process your order (ordre)."

But because the CSR had a late night, is not fluent in French and misplaced or transposed four letters, the following e-mail was sent:

CSR's actual wrap-up: "If that will be all today, Madame Dupont, I'd like to compliment you on your excellent cabbages (choux). I am faxing you a form, and if you could just monkey (singe) it for me, I'll process your garbage (ordure)."

Machine translation will never be perfect, particularly for an often illogical language such as English (why do we park on driveways and drive on parkways?), but I think they are an exciting boost for e-sales and e-service that may remove the known barriers to conducting international businesses on the Web. Additionally, you'll always find sources for translating among English, German, Italian, French and Japanese. If your needs involves languages a little off the beaten track say, Welsh, Indonesian or Farsi, you're going to have a look a little harder and wait a little longer, particularly with languages that do not use the more common alphabets of the world. (Though if you are interested in learning phrases in a more unusual language, try www.foreignword.com, which includes at least some level of translation for languages such as Basque, Frisian, Maori and Sanskrit.)

What's the next step after that? How about polished speech-to-text capabilities that undergo machine translations and then are converted from text back to speech almost instantaneously? Could such technology be scaled down to be hand-held, as well? Instant language translation via your PDA, maybe?

This all sounds very sci-fi and improbable, doesn't it? Bet you won't think so next time you're stuck at a train station in Bulgaria and don't know the word for "restroom."

Forfatteren kan bli satt seg i forbindelse med p troth@tmcnet.com.

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