Mike Lewis tests the skills of programs that attempt to break the language barrier, while Roderick Kay examines improvements in the EU's own 20-year-old translation system
The e-mail message was from a friend in France. He was organising a conference in Paris on behalf of a computer training company. Would I agree to help? The conference itself was to be in English, but the publicity and administration would be in both English and French.

I speak good conversational French. But organising a conference in that language? C'est une tout autre affaire. I hesitated at the thought of writing bilingual press releases, corresponding with speakers in French, and handling administrative chores in a language other than my own.

But wait. Most of the work would be done on my PC. Since the text would all be on disk anyway, why not get the computer to translate it between English and French as necessary? I knew that mainframe-based machine translation existed back in the 1970s. Surely it would have reached the PC by now.

It turns out that there are two firms selling PC translation software. Intergraph offers the Transcend range (for Windows), which translates from English into French, Spanish, German, Italian or Portuguese, and from French, German or Spanish back into English. The full bi-directional English/French version would set me back pounds 600.

Lower down the market, Globalink's Power Translate Deluxe (for Windows and the Mac) costs pounds 129 and offers bi-directional translation between English and French, German or Spanish. Both vendors also sell cut-down versions, which lack specialist business and technical dictionaries. Prices start at pounds 49 for Globalink's Language Assistant, and pounds 69 for Transcend LT.

"Don't expect Transcend to be as good as a human translator," the sales person at Intergraph warned me. "It'll provide good results from simple clear texts, but it won't handle anything elaborate. It's best to use it for a first draft, then polish it up yourself."

Transcend has a minimal user interface. You tell it the name of the file containing the original text and the one where the translation is to be written, then relax while the program does its job. You don't actually see the text on the screen - you have to fire up your word processor to view it, which is a nuisance. But at least Transcend can read most WP files directly, and it retains the original fonts and formatting.

I tested the program with a passage from a French booklet on office ergonomics. The result was only a little better than if a non-French speaker had looked up each word in a dictionary and strung the results together - which, of course, is exactly what the program does. Nevertheless, the translation was comprehensible, even if the style was a little peculiar.

For example, the program produced this: "Dispose so possible your tools around you on your office in order to reduce the distance that you some separate." I take that to mean that you should arrange your tools on your desk so as to minimise the distance you have to reach for them. I'd quibble at "on your office" - the preposition in "sur votre bureau" should have told the program that it was dealing with a desk - but the rest of the text was plain enough.

Apart from making that same mistake, the Globalink program did a reasonable job on the booklet. But it stumbled at one point, losing an entire negative: "les objets ... dont vous n'avez pas besoin en permanence" came out as "the objects ... which you need in permanence" - the opposite of what the author intended.

Operationally, Globalink is a lot more convenient than Transcend, not least because it has its own editor. It can import text from word processors, or you can type straight into the program. After the translation, you can view and edit the result alongside the original. The snag is that the editor does not support word-wrap, which means that you have to tediously scroll the window to see long lines.

Encouraged by my success with the ergonomics booklet, I tried the programs with something more challenging: Albert Camus' short story, "L'Hote" (The Guest). Here, Globalink excelled. Transcend could only manage sentences like: "They again had not initiated the abrupt raidillon that took to the school." Globalink's offerings were much more intelligible: "They had not yet started up the abrupt rise that led to the school."

Transcend made a howler with "il faisait froid", which it translated as "it did cold". Globalink got this right. And where Camus speaks of "une couche blanche et sale", Transcend could only offer "a white layer and salt". Mistaking "sale" (dirty) for "sal" (salt) does not inspire confidence.

For occasional users, both vendors offer an alternative to buying the programs outright. Globalink lets you translate text over the Internet, on a pay-as-you-go basis. The service, which is called Barcelona, is currently only available in North America, but it will be extended to Europe later this year. In the meantime, you can try it out, free of charge, with sample text. To find out more, visit the company's Web page, at htt://www.globalink.com.

Intergraph provides an automatic translation service via Compuserve, at a cost of US$0.03 per word. For an additional $0.07 per word, a human editor will polish the translation up for you. Type GO TRANSLATE at the Compuserve prompt for details.

In the end, I chose Globalink to help me organise the conference. As well as costing less than Transcend, it was easier to use and generally produced better results. That said, both programs produce perfectly acceptable translations, provided you accept their limitations and are prepared to tidy up their output.

As for the conference, it was a success. It was very tiring, but I was able to relax on the train home with a book of Camus' short stories. In translation, of course.

Intergraph: 01793 619999; Globalink: 0800 752752.