Imagine you spent weeks scouring the Web digging up data for a research project, and you finally hit pay dirt: The perfect document that explains everything...in Dutch! Something similar happened to me recently, and since I don't speak the language of Rembrandt and Erasmus, I was inspired to check out the dozen free Web sites that translate various tongues.
That's the lure such sites dangle in front of the linguistically challenged. In reality, though, most of them are come-ons from companies that sell translations done by humans or by computer servers that handle large-scale translation projects. The freebies offer quickie translations of Web pages and small chunks of text. Sometimes you can choose from as many as 20 languages, but often only English and a few others are available.
Considering that they're free and entirely computerized, most of the sites do a reasonable job. But at times, I found myself wondering whether their main purpose was to highlight why you ought to pay the big bucks for reliable human translations.
In fairness, the more honest sites don't overpromise. Services like Worldlingo.com and Alis Technologies' Alis.com make it clear that they're only able to provide, at best, the gist of the meaning--not a bona fide rendition. Indeed, a whole new term, "gisting," has emerged to describe the rough and often hilarious results of machine translation. Alis has even given its service the clever name "Gist-in-Time" translations.
There are some important caveats about online translation sites, though. First, you absolutely cannot count on them for important business communications. Even the best make frequent errors that can render their results nearly incomprehensible--and potentially catastrophic. For instance, the previous sentence, sent on a round trip through Worldlingo, where I converted it from English to Portuguese and back again, came out as: "Exactly better they make the frequent errors that relieve its results almost incomprehensible--and catastrophic potential." Worldlingo did far better with French and German, returning almost perfect translations. But if you have to send a crucial letter to somebody in another country, you still need to shell out for a professional.
What about using automatic translation for casual e-mail or chatting? I tried one service, called T-mail.com, that offers a simple solution. You type your e-mail and cc the T-Mail server, which forwards a translation to the recipient. Unfortunately, the results weren't acceptable. A note sent to me by an Italian colleague included such memorable phrases as "The sight of the below trees comes hidden to the look of the fanciull from one often tendaggio"--whatever that means. T-Mail also truncated some sentences. Even when I avoided slang and tricky constructions, the meaning was often lost on my subjects.
The wide variation in quality means you really have to try several sites to find the one that best handles your needs. I found that Systran Software, the technology used by search and portal sites Google and AOL, consistently outperformed SDL International's FreeTranslation.com. Worldlingo also uses the Systran engine, but I preferred Systran's user interface. The worst I found: Translation Experts, from InterTran. The site has a pretty interface decked out with colorful flags and offers languages not found elsewhere, such as Polish and Turkish. But four out of five times I tried to reach it, I was turned away by a message that was both boastful and cryptic: "Too many translation requests by millions of users. Please [a href="http://www.tranexp.com/win/NeuroTra.htm" target="_new">click here [/a] or try again later." Ugh. When I did manage to connect, the site was unbearably slow and the quality didn't make the grade.
The sad truth is that machine translation still isn't ready for prime time. It's terrific for converting individual words and does provide the gist of foreign language texts and Web sites. So try it. Just don't trust it for business over the World Wide Web--or, as one site translated it, the Canvas Through Everyone.