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Language translation at fingertips

Language translation at fingertips

By Jim Krane

The Associated Press

NEW YORK ― What do you do when you’re chomping into a currywurst sausage in Berlin and ― Crack! ― your front tooth snaps off?

An unsavvy traveler might simply point to the broken tooth and moan.

But the makers of MobiLearn Talking Pocket PC phrase books offer a more interesting solution. Tap on your handheld computer screen a few times and a soothing female voice springs forth, telling those around you: “Ich habe einen Zahn abgebrochen” or “I broke my tooth.”

IBM offers a more useful handheld translation software called ViaVoice Translator that immediately converts anything you can say in English, not just stock phrases.

It allows you to curse the currywurst vendor ― or try out your favorite nightclub pickup lines.

There are certainly better uses for the more limited MobiLearn phrase books, which sell for $15.95 for a single language, and $30.95 for the version I tested, which translates 432 phrases in any combination among English, German, French, Italian and Spanish. The software, along with short MP3 sound files, are downloaded from MobiLearn’s Web site.

For instance, you can use it to say “Wo sind die Toiletten, bitte?” which means “Where is the bathroom?” ― a perennially useful question.

If you’re shy about pronunciation, let the machine play it a few times so you can practice. Or you can simply let the handheld do the talking.

The U.S. military uses a similar device, the Phraselator, to translate English commands like “Drop the gun!” and “Disperse now!” into Arabic, Pashto, Kurdish and dozens of other languages. Most of the tongues that interest the military haven’t made it into civilian software.

The Phraselator also works with English voice cues, meaning you can say the command in English, and the machine finds and plays the corresponding Arabic.

With MobiLearn, if what you want to say isn’t among the stock phrases in the repertoire, you’re on your own.

But IBM’s ViaVoice lets you import your own text to translate. You can also tap in custom phrases with the keypad or stylus.

Had you broken a tooth with ViaVoice in your pocket, you could say just about anything, including “Your tough currywurst just broke my tooth! Give me a refund!”

In a few seconds, the program’s translation engine comes up with “Ihre zahe currywurst hat mir gerade den Zahn gebrochen! Geben Sie mir eine Ruckerstattung!”

It uses a text-to-speech generator to fire off the phrases in trembly metallic German, accurately enough to be understood by any German. Although, many Berlin currywurst vendors aren’t actual Germans, but that’s another matter.

ViaVoice’s translation engine converted a story I wrote into German with just a few flubbed words, according to my Berlitz German tutor.

The translation compared favorably with AltaVista’s Babel Fish, a free Web-based translation engine. Babel Fish seemed to have more errors, and didn’t even attempt to convert a few words.

The ViaVoice software comes in $18 dual-language versions that handle English and French, Italian, German and Spanish.

All four cost $48. ViaVoice works only on Compaq’s iPAQ handheld, which runs Microsoft’s Pocket PC 2002 software. MobiLearn works on any Pocket PC device.

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