Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Lord Conrad Black Trial, Translation, and Learning Languages

Someone recently sent me an article from the International Herald Tribune. It has nothing to do with translation (instead, it is about the Lord Conrad Black trial, in which my father happens to be serving as an expert witness), but I noticed something interesting next to the content of the piece. Besides the usual features, such as “e-mail this article” or “print,” there is a “translate” function. A reader can choose this function in order to get either detailed English definitions of the words in the piece or translations of the words to Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, or German. The service is run by Ultralingua, a company I had never heard of before.

The definitions/translations serve a purpose; namely, for readers for whom English is not their native tongue, this helps them understand any difficult words they come across. However, the service doesn’t recognize numbers or names (“Conrad Black” is suggested to be “ConsanguĂ­neo Negro” in Spanish!), and of course there is no way for the machine translations (really just words copied from bilingual dictionaries) to understand or work with the context, which means that the words are translated out of context (i.e. many possible translations are given) and the translations do not become a coherent and complete text. Rather than attempting to be a translation tool, I think this service could instead be exploited for language learning. It would be useful (and fascinating!) for many of us to be able to click on any word on any website and be able to immediately access a detailed definition and translations to a multitude of languages.

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