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Q: I'm using the Web to plan a trip abroad, and the language barrier has been a real pain. I've tried translating some pages and e-mails with AltaVista's Babelfish, but the output is gibberish. There's got to be some better online translators out there, right?
As you may recall from day one of high school Spanish, linguistic rules are rarely logical. That's bad news for microchips, which bungle most any task that doesn't involve number crunching. Expensive commercial translators regularly muck up simple idioms and grammatical quirks, and their free online versions are even klutzier. Mr. Roboto recently tested over a dozen rivals to Babelfish, few of which impressed.
Though Babelfish (babelfish.altavista.com) has gotten a bad rap for nonsensical translations, its engine was designed by Systran, a machine-translation pioneer whose software has long been used by the Pentagon, and it's actually quite handy with semi-technical documents. If you need to read the owner's manual for your German-made coffee grinder, you could do a lot worse. Babelfish can translate 150-word chunks of text, or you can simply enter a URL and it'll decipher the entire page.
The problems start when language becomes either more colloquial or more poetic. Babelfish was relatively stymied by the two test phrases: a Joycean snippet from "The Dead" ("Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age") and a classic boast by hip-hop great Big L ("I'm so ahead of my time, my parents haven't met yet"). Spanish- and Japanese-speaking consultants were confounded by Babelfish's translations, the latter believing that Joyce's admonition was, in fact, a jumbled Zen koan. The URL translation feature also had some Japanese-to-English problems; a program listing from the Asahi Broadcasting Corporation (asahi.jp) registered as "upper swamp emiko talkative cooking." Huh?
Babelfish is more lucid with Romance languages, but not quite as solid as Voilà (trans.voila.fr). This service has a good feel for Western vernaculars, especially its native Frenchthe translation of Big L's quip didn't read like a textbook entry, at least. It can also translate 300-word portions, double its American competitor's limit. As for Web page converters, my highest marks go to Alis Technologies' Gist-in-Time (www.teletranslator.com), which translates as you surfa feature sorely lacking in Babelfish.
Voilà is strictly Eurocentric, however, and Gist-in-Time's only Asian options are Chinese and Japanese. If your linguistic needs run farther afield, try Foreignword.com, which links to dozens of dictionaries and translators. The offerings here include Tamil, Maori, and Frisian. Some of the links tend toward the defectivethe Zulu translator, based on a South African server, never worked properly on my PCand you'll have to settle for single-word look-ups in most languages. Still, no other site could take a stab at translating Big L into Welsh: "Fi m fel o flaen chan 'm amsera, 'm rhieni aberfa t cyffyrddedig eto." What say you, Welsh-fluent readersaccurate or not?
If your goal is to send a non-English speaker a semi-comprehensible e-mail, check out Russia's Promt (translate.ru). Simply write an English message, choose your target language, and Promt takes care of the rest. Again, European languages are the stars here; if you need Japanese, try T-Mail (t-mail.com), which requires a free registration. For $35, you can also spring for LingoMAIL (www.lingomail.com), the only e-mail translator I came across with such left-of-the-Oder gems as Belorussian, not to mention Arabic and Hebrew.
With any translator, be sure to keep your writing simple. You shouldn't have too much difficulty booking a hotel room in Montevideo using Promt, or getting directions from Rio de Janeiro to Curitiba via Babelfish. But if you're going to be composing "Dear John" notes or decoding instructions for a chemistry experiment, disaster can ensue. Before you machine-translate, briefly ponder the words of famed American poet James Merrill: "All is translation/And every bit of us is lost in it."
Or, according to Foreignword.com's English-to-Norwegian conversion: "All er oversettelse/Og hver bit av oss taper i det."
Input questions at email@example.com.