AltaVista Offers Slicker Translations

Called Babel Fish 2000, the update includes a new feature for translating entire Web pages, and a virtual keyboard for typing in foreign character sets. The updated service also adds support for three additional pairs of languages, and has a modified user interface designed to be easier to use, AltaVista officials said.

Translation services are growing in importance as use of the Web becomes more widespread around the world, and as the content available becomes increasingly multilingual. More than half of AltaVista's users are from outside the U.S., making the ability to communicate across languages a high priority for the company, the officials said.

Babel Fish allows you to enter a block of text up to 800 words long, and with the click of a mouse translate that text between 13 pairs of languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Russian.

You can also enter an Internet address, or URL, and Babel Fish will generate a translated version of that Web page. The version launched Wednesday adds the ability to click through links on a translated Web page to be taken to translated versions of subsequent pages. The service won't translate words that appear as images--only text.

How Accurate?

Like other computerized translation services, AltaVista officials acknowledge their service can't be as accurate as a translation done by a human being. Babel Fish 2000 claims an accuracy rate of 80 percent for documents written in clear grammar, which is a slight improvement over the previous version, said Seth Socolow, producer of translation services at AltaVista.

The new service also includes a virtual keyboard that pops up on the screen and lets users who don't know how to internationalize their PC keyboard type foreign characters. The keyboard includes characters in the Cyrillic script, used in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, and in European alphabets.

Babel Fish currently doesn't support any Asian languages.

Babel Fish is most popular among consumers, although businesses also use the software, to translate e-mail messages from overseas customers, for example, Socolow said. Translating documents such as legal contracts, where accuracy is critical, would be "too risky," he conceded.

"There are also a fair amount of students who use this to 'assist' in their foreign-language homework," Socolow said. "I use the word 'assist' generously," he added.

The new translation pairs added today are German-French, French-German, and Russian-English and join the ten existing pairs of English to French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish respectively, and vice versa.

AltaVista's service competes with a raft of other free translation services on the Web, including Infoseek's Go Translator; FreeTranslation.com, offered by Transparent Language Inc.; InterTran, offered by Translation Experts Ltd.; and Systran SA's Systran Translation. With more than 3 million unique visitors per month, AltaVista claims its service is the most widely used.

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