Compare & Contrast
Non Parli Italiano? Non Ti Preoccupare!
By Anthony Paonita
HERE'S a strange torsion on the old play of the telephone. Instead of to have a line of the people repeat you the same cliché, I translated this paragraph into German, owing to Web Web based-Babelfish maintain. And then back translates it again. And this was the result.
Don't adjust your screen. Yes, there's something just a bit screwy about the preceding paragraph. Here it is again, as I wrote it originally:
"Here's a weird twist on the old game of telephone. Instead of having a line of people repeat the same phrase, I translated this paragraph into German, thanks to the Web-based "Babelfish" service. And then translated it back again. And this was the result."
You're probably asking why I did it in the first place. Even though English dominates the Web, and even though much of the world's business is conducted in our native tongue (DaimlerChrysler even specifies it as the multi-national automaker's official in-house language), it is not spoken by everyone. Every now and then, even American lawyers need to either communicate in another language, or find someone -- or something -- to do it for them.
I'm immediately concerned with the "something" aspect. Computers have made communicating and writing easier, but we're still in a primordial stage of multilingual facility. But there are software packages and Web-based services that make maneuvering in foreign languages somewhat easier.
There are some pitfalls, and I'll get them out of the way first. You shouldn't trust your communications with these products. As you can see from the example above, even a simple paragraph can be rendered in an awkward, if not hilarious way. You don't want to take the risk of being misunderstood.
Why does it happen? It's because of the very nature of language, and it's not just a foible of our mother tongue. Most terms depend on their context, and single words by themselves often don't mean very much. As a bilingual kind of guy, when translating from my other language, Italian, I often have to listen to a speaker's sentence, or the equivalent of a paragraph, before I can translate. Words appear in a different sequence, and colloquialisms often don't cross language barriers.
Italians, for example, think the idea of "taking a shower" is pretty funny. Taking it where? So translation products are more useful in allowing you to know what's going on, rather than as a translator into another language of your subtle, painstaking work product.
So what's out there?
One pioneer in Web multilingualism was Altavista's Babelfish. It's a great resource, both for translation and mischievous fun.
Want to read the European Union decision commentary that's posted on a French Web site, but only in French? Simply type the URL into the Babelfish form, check the appropriate translation, and Babelfish will render a pretty literal translation. Words it can't understand are left unmolested, but it has this funny habit of translating names. The Volkswagen Passat automobile, for instance, is rendered in Babelfish's translation of a German auto magazine site as "trade wind." Not exactly what the guys from Wolfsburg were thinking.
Babelfish also offers to translate plain text. Just type it in a box, and it comes back, more or less. There's a wide choice when it comes to language: Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish. But with the Asian languages, you'll have to have the language fonts installed on your PC; otherwise, you'll see nothing but question marks and other symbols where the translation should appear.
Another common search site, Google, translates as well. In Google's case, the process is transparent. If the search engine detects that a site is in another language, a "translate this document" link appears. Its effectiveness is similar to Babelfish's, but it does not offer to translate text, nor can you translate from English to another language. Finally, the language choices are more limited.
If you want to go past the rudimentary help Babelfish and Google offer, you'll have to pay. And there's a viejo way and a nuevo way to do that.
One of they big names in computer translation is Systrans, in business for more than 30 years. Its Web site boasts of its work for the U.S. Department of Defense and of its software support for Windows and various flavors of Unix (sorry, they don't do Macs).
Systran will happily sell you translation software packaged in a nice shrink-wrapped box, for French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian for basic programs, with Japanese and Korean for the more expensive models. But even Systran warns: "SYSTRAN strives to achieve the highest possible accuracy, however no automated translation is perfect nor is it intended to replace human translators. Users should note that the quality of the source text significantly affects the translations."
If this makes you a little queasy, especially if you're trying to translate that cease-and-desist letter into Korean, Systran offers yet another alternative: Human translation, of all things. Point your browser to www.systranet.com, and you'll see a link for "human translation" on the left. Simply enter either the URL of the Web site you wish to be translated, or enter the text. For $50 and up, a Berlitz-trained language expert will do the job for you.
Human translation is more valuable, if not crucial, if you're the sender. If you're on the receiving end of something in another language, you can and should try the alternatives first. If you end up with something like the first paragraph, or if it's technical and precise, then take the pay-translation route.
Systran isn't the only translation software/services company around. U.K.-based Translation Experts Ltd., offers both software for Mac and Windows machines, as well as human translation services. A freebie on its Web site even translates news from such sources as (naturally) the BBC and Yahoo!
The embattled Belgian speech recognition and translation software company Lernout & Hauspie also offers something called Power Translator Pro, which works with Word and WordPerfect, as well as Outlook and Lotus Notes. Power Translator comes equipped with a Web browser plug-in that lets you translate Web pages as well.
So go forth into the world and speak your mind. And the hope right which your marvellous prose does not obtain muddled in the translation. Or, er, just hope that your wonderful prose doesn't get muddled in the translation.
Anthony Paonita is a senior editor for The American Lawyer and a contributing editor to Law Technology News.