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Please Translate That for Me
Posted On September 3, 2009

The news from the Official Google Blog seemed pretty impressive to me. Google recently added nine new languages to Google Translate ( Afrikaans, Belarusian, Icelandic, Irish, Macedonian, Malay, Swahili, Welsh, and Yiddish ( That means that Google Translate now supports 51 languages and 2,550 language pairs-including all 23 official EU languages. While the company admitted that the translation quality of these newest languages is still a little rough, it said this will improve over time. And the company is continuously working to improve the quality of all languages supported by Google Translate. I had no idea the language support was so extensive.

While I've occasionally used the translate function within the Google Toolbar to translate a webpage into English, I didn't realize the company was also working to integrate Google Translate into some of its other products. "[Y]ou can already translate emails within Gmail, webpages using Google Toolbar, RSS feeds in Google Reader, and most recently, documents within Google Docs."

For some folks needing to translate content into other languages, the machine translation offered in this function might not be adequate. Fortunately, Google also offers a Translator Toolkit (, which provides an easy-to-use editor that enables translators to add a human touch to the machine translation. The tools include translation search, bilingual dictionaries, translation memories, and collaboration. The system is integrated with Wikipedia and Knol and supports common document types including Word and HTML.

Having had my eyes opened to what Google offers for translation, I decided to review what else is available. After all, our increasingly global economy means that we're going to experience more communication in languages foreign to us-email, documents, articles, and websites.

Google isn't the only search provider that offers a translation service. Microsoft's Bing web search will show a "Translate this page" message next to a result that is presented in a different language from the default when it can offer a translation. Microsoft also offers Bing Translator (, which provides text and website translation, a bilingual viewer, language auto-detect, website widgets for translation capabilities, and a translator button in the optional toolbar.

The Yahoo! Toolbar includes the optional Babel Fish Translation tool (, which also uses machine translation technology to translate sentences presented in one language into another. You can also add a free search box to your website to enable visitors to translate text. Babel Fish can translate either text or full webpages, but it doesn't offer nearly as many languages as Google-just 12 of the more common ones. I assumed that the Babel Fish technology came from Yahoo!'s acquisition of AltaVista-a name some of us old-timers still remember. But the site says "Powered by SYSTRAN," which is a well-known supplier of language translation software.

Digging a bit further, I found that SYSTRAN also offers a free online translation service called SYSTRANet ( Users who register for a free account can translate texts, webpages, websites, and Microsoft Office documents and can receive foreign language RSS feeds in their native language. Of course, if you need more features, the company will be happy to sell you one of its software products-for desktop, server, or online use.

If you're in a humorous mood, try the Lost in Translation site (, which machine translates a phrase back and forth among five different languages-an application certainly never intended by SYSTRAN. As the site says, "The resulting half-English, half-foreign, and totally non sequitur response bears almost no resemblance to the original. Remember the old game of ‘Telephone'? Something is lost, and sometimes something is gained." Here's a classic example:

I'm a little tea pot, short and stout.
translates into
They are a small POTENTIOMETER, short circuits and a beer of malzes of the tea.

There are many commercial sites that promote the services of professional translators. Some, such as WorldLingo (, offer free teasers-a limit of 500 words-with subscriptions for other levels of support. The company has numerous global enterprise clients. Microsoft has integrated the WorldLingo translation technology into Word-a feature I unfortunately didn't know was there. It's actually very cool. A Microsoft representative tells me that the next version, Office 2010, will add the Microsoft Translator service as a new service alongside the existing WorldLingo translator. 

For a more in-depth look at what's out there, see the June 2009 article in C&RL News, "Translation Resources on the Web: A Guide to Accurate, Free Sites" ( It's written by Rebecca A. Martin and Sarah McHone-Chase, librarians at Northern Illinois University Libraries. The authors cover gateways to multilingual dictionaries and glossaries, as well as directories with access to professional tools. They include some academic institutions that serve as megasites for hundreds of free translation resources, for example, a site with advanced glossaries for scientific and technical translations and a site that helps with health information translations (

The authors also shared some interesting tips about searching with Google.

For example, after using preferences on Google to select a language in which to search, a translator can try out a phrase within quotation marks to get not only its context, but also a sense of its usage by observing the number of hits. In addition, the Google string searches for synonyms (the tilde), definitions (define:), and fill-in-the-blank (the asterisk) all work in foreign languages albeit with varying results.

I've barely touched on the resources that are out there-all the free glossaries, dictionaries, and tools. I learned a lot exploring this topic, and I won't hesitate to click on a search result in another language-keeping in mind, of course, the inherent limitations of machine translation.

Finally, as a news hound, I was surprised to stumble on this site: NEWSTRAN.COM, The Original Multilingual MetaNews Translator ( It claims to translate 10,000-plus foreign newspapers for free. NEWSTRAM.COM is a free educational service of, an independent, nonprofit human rights organization. The site offers a split-screen browser that it says has become popular with language instructors, students, and travelers. Very cool indeed.

Here are a few more links for you to check out:

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Michael Harmann12/14/2011 9:04:40 AM

Machine translations should really be only used for a quick, general and basic understanding.

Until such a time that machine translations can replicate human speech patterns, taking account of local dialects, nuances, verb structures, etc, then I'm afraid to rely on it other than as that mentioned above would in my opinion result in deficiencies.

We use a translation services agency called TransABC and they have been very good, so I would recommend them to anyone needing to use human translators. AND their prices were quite reasonable!

Their website:
Posted By James Campbell9/16/2009 10:14:28 AM

Blanket condemnations of translation services are just about as dumb as saying that they mean no one ever needs to learn other languages. No, they're not to be relied on for precise meanings, but in a language you don't know they can give you a general idea of what's going on in a text and let you decide whether to pursue it further. In a language you do know, they can provide a handy first draft that may save a lot of keyboarding.

Does it always work? No. Does it work often enough to be worth a try? Yes.
Posted By Lingo24 Translation Services9/8/2009 9:47:47 AM

Countless people tap into the plethora of free online translation tools to magically convert text between languages with nothing more than a ‘copy/paste/click’ procedure. It’s effortless. But it is, of course, too good to be true.

At best, machine translations give you a semi-coherent text that just about gets the intended message across. At worst, what you have is a garbled, nonsensical spiel that mixes tenses, confuses grammar and throws in a few hilarious (if potentially embarrassing!) ‘mis-translations’ to boot.

Best to avoid these in our view.


Posted By Justin Blamont9/3/2009 8:36:35 AM

Have you tried "out of sight, out of mind" in Mandarin Chinese?
The result is "invisible idiot"
Posted By John Toleman9/3/2009 6:56:07 AM

It is indeed exciting to hear that those companies try to break language barriers, yet I'll not use all those tools in the next few years, because their translation quality is very poor, and when I translate my documents I need high-quality translation for sensitive content, that will be used for business purposes (I currently use a fast yet professional translation service called it's online 24/7 and I'm very pleased with their service and attitude). I hope that one day I'll be able to use all those wonderful tools that are described in the article.

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