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Lost in Cyberspace

Translators put the Web into English

This article was originally published on June 2, 1998 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

As the World Wide Web continues to grow beyond its birthplace in the United States, more and more sites are springing up in languages other than English. While many of us took a foreign language in high school, and others are bilingual, few are truly comfortable in more than two languages. What to do when a page comes up on a search engine with info you need but the text is in a language you don't know?

Power Translator
Power Translator
Globalink Inc.: 1998

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Universal Translator
Universal Translator
Language Force: 1998

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There are several commercial products that promise to help you translate on the fly. Two of these are fairly visible on store shelves, Universal Translator and Power Translator.

The products aren't exactly the same: Universal Translator claims to support 25 languages in one package (Chinese, Czech, Swedish and more in addition to standards like Spanish, French and German); Power Translator takes on a more modest four – German, French, Spanish and Italian. Universal Translator has a built-in tutorial game to supposedly help you learn a foreign language, and also includes fonts, clip-art and wallpaper for your Web site or desktop. Power Translator doesn't have any of those, but adds a translation option to the pull-down menu of both WordPerfect and Word; Universal Translator has its own low-end word processor built in.

The two programs also differ in how they interface with your Web browser. Universal Translator uses a separate program into which you must copy and paste the text in question. Power Translator has a much simpler interface, at least for Netscape and Internet Explorer. You simply take the existing Web document question, launch the Web translator, and click on "translate" – the program then re-creates the same document in your browser, only now in English (although you will need to open any frames into a new window before you can translate them).

Not only is it easier to use, but more to the point, Power Translator does a better job of actually translating.

For our test, we chose German and Spanish, languages supported by both programs and languages that are increasingly common on the Web.

For German, we found a page apparently hosted by a distant relative of mine, one Gunter Trageser.

The beauty of this Web site is that Gunter has all his pages up in both German and English – not that his translations into English are perfect, but it does give a standard against which to measure the two translation programs.

Universal Translator had some real problems, at least with German and Spanish. Maybe it does fine in Swedish and Czech, but on the more common languages it came up wanting in comparison to Power Translator.

One selection from the German page, a selection on Indian vs. Western philosophy, reads on Gunter's English version:

"In the last century, Sigmund Freud founded the psychology as an admitted science. Many people believed, Freud was the first man, who did research in the human subconcious [sic]. But there were strong criticism on this opinion."

It would seem that English is not Gunter's first language. Yet his translation is clear enough to understand. Would that the Universal Translator version was:

"In the last Jahrhundert begründete then Sigmund Freud the Psychology when a recognized Science. Some Leute believed damals nor, Freud wäre the first Human being been, the the Unbewußte in the Human beings investigated. But soon gave it strong Criticism on this Opinion."

Yikes. But how did Power Translator do?

"In the last century, Sigmund justified Freud the psychology as a recognized science then. Some people still believed then, Freud would have been the first person, who explored the unconscious in the person. But soon there was strong criticism at this opinion."

After checking other pages in German, this was a fairly typical experience. The Universal Translator just couldn't seem to get a lot of the words. And while Power Translator's results were often stilted, sounding like a New York cabbie, at least you could understand nearly everything that was being presented to you.

For Spanish, we visited a site named "Mil Libros en Internet" ("A Thousand Books on the Internet") at

Universal Translator was again unable to fully translate simple phrases, this time from the introduction to the site:

"It is able to enjoy in the Meter, in the autobús, in the airplane, in the sala of wait from the doctor and until in the embotellamientos of traffic."

The same phrase as translated by Power Translator:

"A book is an entertainment object that you can take to all sides. One can enjoy in the Meter, in the bus, in the airplane, in the room of the doctor's wait and until in the traffic jams."

What to say? Well, I remember "sala" being "room" from eighth-grade Spanish some 25 years ago. And "autobus" is obviously "bus." Yet Universal Translator caught neither of those, while Power Translator not only got all the easy ones but also knew that "embotellamientos de tráfic" was a traffic jam. Again, the grammar and structure were off in Power Translator, but at least it got nearly all of the words.

While both products emphasize that they do not offer either exact or even always-dependable translation, repeated use indicated that the Universal Translator is incapable of offering even mildly useful translation – for $99, a program ought to be able to do better than that.