Computers Try To Get the Meaning Across Cultural Divide

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Imagine a place where you meet people from around the world. It doesn't matter what language you speak. Everyone understands everyone else.

Such a place almost exists today. A new feature of the CompuServe on-line service called the World Community Forum invites people worldwide to share ideas about culture, politics, sports, even philosophy. Write a message in English and a few minutes later a CompuServe computer has it translated into German, French, and Spanish. Write in Spanish, and the computer translates into the other three languages. And so on.

Computer translation isn't exactly a mature science. Some translations you can make out: ''I keep an excellent ones to remember Texas (Austin, Houston, Antonio San). My wish: return there with my three young sons. I visited the spatial center of the NASA to Houston. I equally met a French astronaut.''

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Others are a little too far out. ''A portfolio manager is tried someone, that other people money too much,'' writes Frank from Germany.

The point is that this decades-old technology, called machine translation, is filtering into the commercial world. The CompuServe forum has already translated more than 1 million words in its first month and later this year plans to offer a translation service for any electronic mail.

Several translation programs are on the market. Intergraph Corporation, which provided the CompuServe program, is talking with word-processor companies, fax-machine makers, and electronic-mail developers. Everyone, it seems, is interested in machine translation.

The problem is that computers can't grasp meanings the way people can, says Jaime Carbonell, director of the Center for Machine Translation at Carnegie Mellon University. If the word is blade, for example, is it the blade of a knife, a turbine blade, or a blade of grass? People can figure it out. Computers can't.

One way around the problem is to restrict a machine's translation to a specific subject. Dr. Carbonell's center has developed a system to translate the technical literature for Caterpillar, the earth-moving machinery-maker. That means turning several thousand pages of highly technical material into six languages. To do it by hand would require an army of translators. The computer translates up to 100,000 words an hour, far faster than any human translator and with more consistency than teams of people who might translate the same technical term in slightly different ways.

Caterpillar is still testing the system. So far it has found the machine boosts productivity roughly 10 times with 70 percent to 90 percent accuracy. The company hopes to save several million dollars in translating costs over the next five to 10 years.

It won't be so easy for general-purpose translation software to match that performance. And the fond hope of making a speech-to-speech translator is still only a hope. People are even less precise in speech than they are on paper, Carbonell says. ''We don't have a backspace key when we talk.''

But maybe we're ready for this less-than-perfect technology. If we can grasp half-finished sentences, follow leaps of the imagination, and pick up the nuance of a grunt or groan, then we ought to be able to make out the broken syntax of a computer. CompuServe users certainly have. ''The program does not have the claim of the perfections,'' writes Regine from Germany. ''It constructs a bridge.'' Perhaps we're ready to cross that half-finished bridge.

''The technology is improving, but it's not making any quantum leaps forward,'' adds Stephen Kerce, Intergraph's translation-software manager. ''Maybe what is growing by quantum leaps is global communication.''

* Citizens of the world, send me your e-mail via Internet (laurentb@delphi.com), CompuServe (70541,3654), or America Online (LBELSIE).

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