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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.