Translation Software Rides Roughshod Over Idiomatic Speech

If the key to world peace is understanding, let's hope they never put a computer in charge of translation. Otherwise, peace talks might go something like this:

We are here united, dispuestos to resolve peacefully the diferencias that us divide.

Uh, yes. We're here to resolve our differences too.

Our conversation has that incorporate various themes important.

I think I catch your meaning.

Hands to the works! How come on to do it?

Come again?

And, from the principle, there are that avoid the violence to everything cost.

Those italicized sentences were generated from an $80 software program called the Universal Translator. It claims to translate from English to 26 languages and back again. But when I typed Spanish phrases into it, it returned with some less-than-illuminating English.

For example, Universal Translator scored well with that old Willie Nelson standby - "Vaya con Dios" ("Go with God"). But a remark about the size of a father's car came back this way: "My father has a car great."

Translations from German to English were equally interesting. "My parents live in the Switzerland" was pretty good. But expressions such as "Why did you say that?" didn't fare so well. "Why have you the said?"

Translations from English into other languages weren't any better.

Don't blame the software too much. For 50 years, computer scientists have struggled to build a general-purpose translation machine that rivals human translators. They haven't come close to succeeding.

This doesn't mean translation programs are useless, just limited. Yes, they can give you the gist of what's being said on, say, a foreign Web page. But they're still too limited for serious correspondence.

If you'd like to try out translation software for yourself, head over to the Systran Group's home page on the Internet ( There, you can register for free and get a $20 credit to try out the company's online translations.

But don't get your hopes up.

"It's almost spring here" in French came out in English: "He is here almost spring." You get the idea.

What all this suggests is not that machines are particularly bad at language, but that people are far superior. We understand colloquialisms. We pick up on humor even across cultures. Most important, we understand the context of words. Here's an example of a literal translation bumping up against an idiomatic one. " 'It was hot in Peking. It is it really a cool place.' You're always going to have problems with that," says Ian Simpson, president of LanguageForce, which makes the Universal Translator.

This week at a huge German computer show, the Orange, Calif., company will show off the deluxe version of its software. The new program will handle 33 languages, instead of 26. Rather than translating directly word for word, as the current version does, it will try to put adjectives and verbs in the right place. Also, users will have the option of buying add-on modules for specific languages with far more information about the language and its structure.

It's slated to start shipping in the US in six weeks and represents another step forward for machine translation in the commercial market.

Still, computers have a long, long way to go. We understand them far better than they understand us.

* Send comments to or visit my In Cyberspace forum at

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