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Rhodri Marsden: Can language translators be trusted – and which is best?


Which online language translator does the best job? A page of text in an unidentifiable language presents few problems for the modern web junkie with a dismal E in GCSE French. A couple of clicks, and that page can easily be rendered in their mother tongue – provided said tongue isn't the obscure Aboriginal dialect of Enindhilyagwa. Yahoo's Babelfish, Microsoft's Bing Translator and Google Language Tools vie for supremacy within the sphere, battling to stop a simply-expressed idea such as "please take your hands off my wife" from losing important nuances and becoming "I offer you the hand of my wife."

Recent advances in machine translation have been incredible. The methods used by the big three services to interpret language rely on a colossal store of translated text (Google, for example, has built its stash from UN documents in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish) and as computers become faster, cheaper and more capacious, translations improve.

Despite this, they're still only tools designed to communicate the gist of something; you'd have unsatisfactory results if you used one to tie up a business deal, and disastrous results if you fed seductive language into it and used the resulting text on an internet dating website. But you still see a certain amount of misplaced trust in these services. You see journalists using them to cut corners rather than call someone who actually speaks the language in question.

Widgets that allow web-designers to automatically "translate" any website they're working on are a terrible idea – you only have to look at sites whose text has obviously been fed through one; my personal favourite is olympicprague.net, a blog supporting Prague's failed bid for the 2016 Olympics, which contains the immemorable phrase: "No other Czech it so high up remind of wheelwright. Thanks, do you big propagator sport became a top marshal president Tomáše Garrigua Masaryka, go everything like after steel wool."

But which service is best? Well, Google's way out in front in terms of number of languages supported (51, as opposed to 20 for Bing and 13 for Yahoo) and, judging by a cursory examination of a translation of the top story at Libération today, Google is ahead on quality, too. But there are exciting developments afoot elsewhere; check out the recent demo by Sakhr Mobile of their real-time voice translation between English and Arabic that just uses an iPhone, at bit.ly/arabictrans. Not sure whether it could help with delicate political negotiations in the Middle East, but it could certainly help a taxi driver get you to the summit.

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