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2009 March 23 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: Lost in Translation: Internet Multilingualism Can Mean Confusion

The Internet is an American invention, and though it has spread around the world, the bulk of the communication conducted through it is still in English. Even so, depending on what you’re doing, you can come across Web pages, blogs and other Internet content in many other languages.

To deal with this multilingualism, various free advertising-supported translation services have popped up. The two most popular are Google Translate (translate.google.com) and Yahoo’s Babel Fish (babelfish.yahoo.com).

You can copy and paste selected text to be translated or translate an entire Web page by typing in its location. At the time of this writing Google Translate could translate text from 40 different languages into English, Babel Fish 12.

One problem, however, with any kind of automated or “machine” translation is that it’s unable to accurately deal with complicated syntax, grammar, figures of speech, idiom and jargon that native speakers take for granted. Just think of the differences between the literal and figurative meaning of the phrase, “I’m going to give you a piece of my mind.”

Using machine translation typically gives you a general idea of the meaning of the words, though sometimes you’re left with nothing but gibberish.

Google Translate and Yahoo’s Babel Fish use different translation engines, so it can sometimes help to use both when trying to better understand what you’re trying to translate.

It can also be helpful to use a bilingual dictionary with words that neither service recognizes. The Web is host to many such dictionaries, which a Google or Yahoo search will uncover. To access one, just type in “German English dictionary” or any other language.

When pasting in text, Yahoo’s Babel Fish is limited to 150-word passages, and Google Translate can choke on longer passages. If you want to translate journal articles and other long documents, it can make sense to use a commercial language translation program.

Two of the most recommended makers of translation programs are Systran (www.systransoft.com) and LEC (www.lec.com). Each offers a range of different products and online services depending on which languages you’ll need and whether the product or service will be used by you individually or by multiple people in your organization.

The legal issues surrounding language translation are as interesting as they are complicated. In 2007, a French teenager wound up spending a night in jail for the prodigious feat of translating into French and posting on the Internet all 759 pages of the latest Harry Potter book within days of its publication.

Such a translation clearly violated the copyright of author J.K. Rowling, who has the legal right to have translated her books into French or any other language and sell them commercially.

The situation becomes less clear when translating for personal use. Take this scenario: You want to read a book written in a foreign language that you don’t understand. No publisher has provided an English translation, and there’s no indication any will. Is translating the book so you can read it legal?

I interviewed five lawyers who specialize in copyright and other intellectual property issues about this. None would offer an unambiguous opinion and their views differed.

One lawyer said for “personal use, the odds are that this would be regarded as fair use and would not result in a copyright infringement claim.”

Another disagreed, saying that this is “an infringement of copyright, technically, but it may not rise to the level of having the copyright law enforced.”

A third pointed out that commercial issues are just as important as creative issues.

“The courts are very focused on whether you’re taking bread off the table of the author,” which wouldn’t be the case in this situation. But he also said that you’d be at risk if the author made a conscious decision not to have the work translated.

A fourth said that because the right of translation belongs to the copyright holder, it’s best to get his or her permission to translate the book.

The fifth lawyer pointed out that when you can’t contact the copyright holder, there are provisions in the international copyright law for obtaining a license to translate a book if a certain number of years have passed since the book’s publication, depending on the country. 

All of this points to the wisdom of an international language, which at the present is English. Though more people speak Chinese as their first language than any other, more people around the world speak English as their first or second language. The Internet only promotes this. 


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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