Spent five years at school struggling to learn a foreign language, and still have trouble ordering five beers and a croque monsieur? Instant translators now available on the Net promise a way out of monolingual hell. But do they deliver?

Remember the bit in Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, when a couple of philosophers pick a fight with Deep Thought, the computer built to find the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything? "What," one of them says, "is the point in staying up all night arguing about whether God exists if you're just going to give us his bloody phone number in the morning?"

Which is a how I feel about the latest "innovation" to hit the Internet: online translation. What was the point in spending five years at school learning pidgin French if a search engine can translate the works of Shakespeare in the time it takes me to dig out a phrase book?

You'll find the translation program, known as Babelfish (taken from the Hitchhiker's Guide), on Altavista. It translates English into French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, as well as vice versa. But (thankfully for people who make their living from doing this kind of thing) it isn't that effective. For example: "What's the good of staying up all night?" translated into Italian and back again, comes back as: "Which thing the bond to remain on all the night?"

It's reassuring to realise that even though we all fear arriving at work one day to find we've been replaced by a machine, there are still tasks that computers can't master. Eventually, we will probably have software that translates material to order but, as Babelfish makes clear, language barriers over the Internet are propped up by that old chestnut: Western dominance. ASCII (the numerical system computers use to store and transmit the letters of the Roman alphabet) is, despite the increasing dominance of graphics, still the primary channel for shifting information around the Internet. Before barriers come down, computers will have to learn to deal with alphabets other than our own.

Direct-language translators are not the only option for wordsmiths. Roget's Thesaurus, for example, has an online edition, and there are numerous other sophisticated technical and foreign-language dictionaries. The Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information has an excellent list of dictionaries and thesaurae which is well worth spending time browsing.

The other problem with these services is that you have to be online to use them. Which is fine if you have a permanent link to the Net, but if you have to dial in, you'll find it a pretty expensive way to use a thesaurus. Professional translators will find them handy but the rest of us, I suppose, will want to wait for something more user-friendly. And in the meantime, we'll just have to hope that computers haven't made the human race redundant before that day arrives. As the Hitchhiker's Guide so succinctly puts it, "Don't panic".


Altavista's online translation engine can "cope" with English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.


The "translator's companion", a list of links and references for professional translators.


Online Roget's Thesaurus.


www.nrc.ca/cisti/cisti_links/ diction_e.shtml

The Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information's hotlink directory of a range of online translation and dictionary tools. Very useful.