Talking in Tongues

Translation devices developed in Germany and Russia's Silicon Valley offer hope for those of us who find multilingualism a tongue twisting task. Meet DFKI's Verbmobil and Ectaco's Universal Translator.

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By  Kate Concannon Published  September 17, 2001

Imagine you are in a remote Chinese village, suffering the hideous gastrointestinal aftermath of a recent business trip to India. Imagine you have but one Mediterranean sunset to sway a Spanish chica, who “inglés non comprehende”.

Imagine a million trifling situations, the fact is this: in matters urgent, there is no room for language barriers.But we can’t all be dazzling linguists with fluency in tens of tongues under our belts. We can, however, make use of friendly little gadgets that are just that.

Verbmobil is the translating talent offered by the artificial intelligence unit DFKI, in Saarbrucken, Germany. The system operates over a standard mobile phone network, and is activated by dialling a number. The user simply speaks into the phone and a recorded voice returns the phrase in translation.

At this time, the Verbmobil (the mobile word) is capable of translating between German, English, Japanese and Chinese. Wolfgang Wahlster, one of the developers behind Verbmobil, stated: “It’s 90% accurate. We have checked it against 25000 translation tasks.” A translation is delivered within milliseconds.

Russia’s Silicon Valley group, Ectaco, have also met the translator task, delivering a product that sounds strangely reminiscent of Douglas Adams: the Universal Translator (UT-103). With built-in Toshiba 32-bit 75MHz processor and 2Mb RAM, the UT-103 is a compact, light-weight solution to awkward ineffable moments. It contains phrases to cover 14 thematic categories, such as “at the hotel” and “at the bank”, which are then narrowed down to specifics, such as “reserving a room”.

The UT-103 deals competently with translation from English into French, Spanish and German. A translation, in the chosen language, of a phrase spoken into the device by the user is shown on the UT-103’s display. The translated phrase can also be “spoken” by the UT-103, if necessary.

To further its appeal, customised versions of the device can be developed for companies, whose employees need to travel frequently, to accommodate translations of terminology and phrases relevant to particular industries.

For leisure and business travellers alike, these translation aids offer simultaneously an accessible way to learn a foreign language, and a way to avoid ever having to. At the least it could prevent you from ordering a dish that would constitute violation of fauna protection codes; at best it could save your life (social or otherwise…)

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