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11.2.98  
Something Gets Lost in the Online Translation Software
Why it's better to have a human write your letters in a foreign language

Want to fire off an overseas contract to a customer or impress a linguistically sensitive Parisian client? If you don't speak French, you might try using a free Web translation site.

Or maybe not. We tested two free online translation services: AltaVista's (babelfish.altavista.com/cgi-bin/translate?), which uses Systran Software Inc.'s translation software, and Globalink's Comprende Mail (www.globalink.com), which offers trial E-mail translation. They claim they can translate English into a host of different languages, including German, Italian, Spanish, and even Portuguese. But if the responses we got with French translation are any indication, you had better not bet the business on these results, which ranged from ungrammatically fathomable to downright hilarious.

We tested the services by plugging in a clause about binding arbitration that might go into a standard business contract. We then added a brief letter, requesting that it be inserted into a document before the final paragraph. The text: "In the event a dispute shall arise between the parties of this (contract, lease, etc.), it is hereby agreed that the dispute shall be referred to United States Arbitration & Mediation for arbitration in accordance with the Arbitration Rules of United States Arbitration & Mediation. The arbitrator's decision shall be final and binding, and judgment may be entered thereon." Not poetry -- but the sort of basic business language encountered every day in contracts.

Apparently, however, our test was too much for the AltaVista site. The translation dropped prepositions, articles, and contractions and couldn't grasp the difference between proper nouns and words. As for the syntax, it makes regular legalese sound positively lucid: "In case a conflict erupts between the parties of this (contract, rental, etc.), it is by this agreed that the conflict will be in accordance with arbitration and mediation as seen by the United States for the arbitrage to the rules of arbitrage of the arbitrage and the mediation of the United States." When AltaVista translated "the decision of the arbiter will be final and binding," the word "binding" came out as "attached." Whatever will French speaking clients think you're up to?

As for our instructions on where to insert the clause, the phrase "please insert the following paragraph at the end of the contract I sent you" came out this way: "Please insert the following paragraph at the far edge...." We couldn't have described it better ourselves.

Comprende Mail's rendition came out more flowery but just as eccentric. "Parties of this (contract, lease)" turned into "receptions [as in cocktail] to this (contract, rent)." The word "rent" translated as a command: Rent!

USER BEWARE. How do the sites explain these oddities? AltaVista says: "Machine translation produces reasonable results in many cases," though it also says one should always mention who did the translating and attach the original. Reba Rosenbluth, a spokesperson for Systran, says that the free service on AltaVista is not nearly as refined as the software it sells for professional use, nor is it considered final-draft quality. But, she says, the free service has hundreds of thousands of users, whose responses are "overwhelmingly positive."

"They use it for recipes, to correspond with friends, to translate foreign Web content, as a dating service," she says.

Globalink's site cautions that users of Comprende "should be aware that the software will typically translate documents into draft-quality language. Exact grammar and word order may be nonstandard and stylistic convention may be lost." Audrey Pobre, a spokeswoman for Lernout & Hauspie, which has acquired Globalink, says that electronic translation is better when a specialized vocabulary is designated. The Comprende service, she says, will be replaced in early 1999 with another free service that should improve the quality.

Still, I wonder what people would think if my business card carried Comprende's translation of my title. "Small Business Editor" came out as "the little publisher of the Scandal."

By Julia Lichtblau in New York
julia_lichtblau@businessweek.com

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