Written by Nicholas Kamuda
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Electronic translators, particularly computerized translation programs, have emerged in the last few years as the main business alternative to using in-house translation teams or hiring a professional translator. Electronic translators have become quick, extremely user-friendly, and powerful enough to be suitable for many normal business applications. Some programs have even begun to make the jump to full-service knowledge management applications.

Most of the types of translating programs that people use fall into one of two categories of computerized translation: machine translation and computer-assisted translation. These are the two fundamental approaches to how translation software is organized; the categories have little to do with the actual natural language processing algorithms used by the programs. They have more to do with how the programs interact with the users.

Types of Software Translators

Machine translation is the more cut-and-dried of the two categories. It refers to any program where the user assists the machine--usually by supplying source text and editing the target text. Though the goal of machine translation programs is to produce perfectly equivalent target text, they often require a little help from the user. Machine translation programs have seen vast improvements over the last few years, but they are not yet independent of human intervention.

Many web-based electronic translators are machine translation programs. By pasting source text into the text box and submitting the form, the program can translate the text into a number of languages with a 75-80 percent success rate. Some machine translation websites can even automatically translate entire websites by processing the HTML text in the target website's source code.

Computer-Assisted Translators

Computer-assisted translators are the alternative to machine translators, and are currently more practical than machine translation programs. They are designed to work with the user to translate text, and give higher priority to the equivalency of the target text than to speed or efficiency. In general, computer-assisted translation programs use both the language skills of the user and the large database of the program to produce faithful and transparent translations.

Many software translation programs (not including software-based foreign language dictionaries) could be considered computer-assisted translation programs: the user selects the text to translate, and the program supplies a list of possible translations in the desired target language. In some cases, the program will also supply cross-translations in the source language to provide the user with context for his/her decision. Many such programs can translate text from a variety of different sources, including documents, email programs, and web browsers.

Characteristics of Good Electronic Translators

The success of electronic translators depends on two main characteristics: the language processing algorithm that the program uses and the depth of the program's glossaries. The processing algorithm controls functions such as sentence parsing, or how the computer breaks up the source sentence and builds the target sentence. Generally, programs that parse sentences into phrases where applicable have a higher degree of success than programs that parse sentences into individual words.

Even the most adept parsing algorithms will have limited success without a comprehensive database of words and phrases, however. Many contemporary programs include multiple dictionaries for all of their target languages, and often include idiom and metaphor glossaries as well. To extend the life and functionality of a program, some developers give users access to updated and newly created glossaries over the Internet, including foreign-language technical reference materials and business syntax guides.

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