Web User Review

Web User MagExtract from Web User, Issue 34, 27 June 2002

Instant translation!

You've finally found the world's greatest web page about your favourite hobby... but it's in Greek. So get translating with these great lingo-switching websites

Bingo! After years of searching, you've stumbled across your online Holy Grail, whether it's a website giving instructions for building a Chrysler Sebring Coupe from scratch or the world's most comprehensive online biography of Scottish boxer Dick McTaggart. Trouble is, it's in a language you don't speak.

At first glance, this may seem like a big problem. But before you run screaming to the nearest evening class in hard-to-master European languages, stop and acquaint yourself with one of the web's handiest family of freebies online translators.

Sites like AltaVista World can turn the worldwide web into your linguistic oyster by succeeding where your ropey classroom French failed. AltaVista uses the Babelfish system developed by French company Systran and named after an animal in Douglas Adam's novel, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. When interstellar travellers inserted a tiny Babel fish in their ear they could instantly understand any spoken language, and the sites we review here aim to do much the same for us.

When online translators work well, they are a thing of beauty. Just cut and paste the address of your chosen website into a search box and voilà!, the whole lot is morphed into simple English or whichever language you choose, provided it's included in the site's database. The number of languages is normally limited, so if you fancy figuring out a website in Serbo-Croat, you may be disappointed. You can also have English pages switched to foreign languages, or translate individual words and phrases. Note, though, that text contained within graphics will not be translated.

As with all brilliant ideas, however, free online translation doesn't work perfectly every time. When we tested five of the best, their lingo-twisting attempts sometimes showed a grasp of English grammar reminiscent of Yoda in Attack of the Clones. But as Dictionary.com boldly states, no site has a human brain, and an instant online translation can at best ‘convey the general sense of the original. Read on to find out which sites came closest to making multilingual humans redundant...

Website translation

For our first test, we asked WorldLingo to Anglicise the front page of the website of Germany's leading news magazine Der Spiegel (www.spiegel.de). After pasting the site's address into the text box on WorldLingo's homepage we were linked, with Teutonic speed and efficiency, to a mainly-English version that got across the general meaning of each article.

We were impressed (and surprised) to find that all the links on the translated page took us to translated pages, so we could continue browsing without putting each new link back through the WorldLingo home page. And of all the sites in our test, this one handled from-English and to-English translations in the widest range of languages (11, including two versions of Chinese), so if you've ever wanted to read The Sun in Italian, this is the place to do it.

But you'd never mistake this machine translator for a subtle human hand. Translations don't give much sense of journalistic nuance, and we found ourselves picking through plenty of gobbledegook ("Shaking scenes took place", began the lead story on our Der Spiegel site). But we were impressed to be able to find such effective translations so fast, and we liked the site's added extras, such as links to online language dictionaries and downloadable features that let your computer display Chinese and Korean characters.

Phrase translation

We took the headline "Wieder Panzer in Dschenin" from Der Spiegel's front page, pasted it into WorldLingo's Text Machine Translation box and, hey presto, it became "Again tanks in Dschenin". Not the best English grammar we've seen, but we know what it means. WorldLingo had more success with a more complicated phrase "Vérifiez vos connaissances sur le merveilleux monde de la bière" from French-Canadian beer website www. bieremag.ca, which became "Check your knowledge on the marvellous world of beer". A pop-up window lets you enter special characters missing from a standard UK keyboard, and there's a useful page of hints and tips for obtaining better translations of individual phrases.

The best-looking site of the bunch, World-Lingo also has the widest range of languages and does the best, often the fastest, job of unravelling foreign websites and phrases.

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