Rudolph the red-smelled reindeer

 

Imagine a Web browser with a "Translate" button. When you're looking at a Web page in a foreign language, simply click the button, and it turns all the text into English.

Say you're trying to decipher an online newspaper in Spanish: the automatic translator keeps the page's overall "look" or design (its photographs, headline sizes, links etc), but instantly converts the words into perfect English - or even Irish.

It all sounds like a Star Trek device, or the Babel fish in The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy. So what are we to make of the search engine Alta-Vista's new translation facility? Well, it's free, super-fast, and turns Web documents back and forth between English and five other languages - French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish.

"We are launching the technology as a global experiment and we invite our 12 million monthly users to test-drive this breakthrough technology for the Web," Alta-Vista's director of technology Louis Monier said at the launch earlier this month.

When you submit your search request to Alta-Vista, each "hit" or result now comes with a "Translate" link. Click it, choose the language you want and the Web page is translated in seconds. It preserves all the original layout features (graphics, fonts etc) and the effect is spooky and downright gob-smacking. A page from a foreign newspaper such as Le Monde or Liberation metamorphoses into English, or a Tom Humphries Irish Times article pops up in German. Wunderbar!

The text to translate doesn't even have to be a Web page. You can cut and paste any text - for example, from a document on your PC - straight into Alta-Vista's translation box to switch it from one language to another.

The implications of the widespread availability of free, relatively high-powered translation facilities could be enormous. In a European context alone, think of what it would mean for business, researchers, students, minority languages, news media and day-to-day culture. But that's the theory.

In practice the Alta-Vista facility is still in its pilot phase. It's easy to use and impressively fast, but it limits itself to a few hundred words at the start of a document. And how does it cope with translating anything more complex than a rudimentary, formulaic document?

A good translation of even a reasonably "simple" piece of conversational prose or a nursery rhyme can involve a surprising amount of knowledge and skills. So how does Alta-Vista's automatic translator cope with a few lines from, say, a Christmas carol?

To test-drive it, we used a rough "double translation" process. In other words, in step one we got it to translate a carol from English into French. Then in step two we fed that French result back in, this time making the program translate the other way, from the French into English again. Then we compared it with the original, and well, Bob's Ton Oncle as they say. This two-way process amplifies the translation algorithm's problems, and shows how we'll still need good old human translators for many years to come. It's also a lot of fun.

For example, (a) search in AltaVista for a Web page with the lyrics to We Wish You A Merry Christmas; (b) hit the "English to French" button and you get Nous vous souhaitons un joyeux Noel;(c) cut and paste this French translation back into the form;(d) hit the "French to English" button. The final result is as follows: "We wish you a Merry Christ- mas; We wish you a Merry Christmas; We wish you a Merry Christmas and a new happy year. Goods tidings which we bring you and with your parents; Goods tidings during Christmas and a new happy year." Not bad at all, considering. Other output, such as "Hark! announce the angels sing glory with the new-born king!", is almost instantly recognisable too. But real life is often far messier than that, and in our Computimes test some other popular seasonal songs quickly came a cropper. Here are the results of 10 doubletranslations of carols - as you begin to guess what they are, try singing them out loud to get the full effect. . .Example one:"The first Christmas which the angel indicated was to the certain poor shepherds in the fields as they extend; In the fields as they extend, keeping their sheep, the one cold winter night which was so deep. Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas born arethe king of Israel." Example two: "King Wenceslas of Good looked at outside on the treat of Stephen, when snow extend around approximately, deeply and crunching and equalizes. Brillamment shown the moon which night, although freezing was cruel, when a poor fellow came in sight, collecting the fuel of winter."Example three: "O come, all the ye faithful, merry and triumphing, O come the ye, O come ye in Bethlehem; Come and behold it, constant the king of the angels; O come, left us adore it, O come, left us adore it, O come, left us adore it, Christ the lord." Example four: "Angels that we heard on top, singing nicely by the night, and the mountains in answer making echo their pleasure courageous. Gloria in the excelsis Deo. Gloria in the excelsis Deo." Example five: "Nights of Silent, holy night, all is calm, all is virgin mother and child of luminous yon round. So tender and soft holy infant, sleep in marvellous peace. Sleep in marvellous peace." Example six:"While the shepherds observed their tapes by the night, very posed on the ground, the angel of the lord is descended, and polished glory around."Example seven:"Away in one to eat, no bin for its bed, the small Jesus lord established his soft head. The stars in the luminous sky looked to thebottom where it extend, the small Jesus lord in sleep on the hay. The cattle of The lowing, the baby awakes, but small crying Jesus lord no it makes. I like the thee, Jesus lord! Look to the bottom of the sky, and remain by my side until the morning is nigh."Example eight: "Rest of merry God you, Messrs, only you do not leave dismay, you recall that Christ our saver was constant the Christmas Day; To back up us all of the power of Satan when we were stray. Tidings of O of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, tidings of O of comfort and joy!" Example nine:"Tinkle the bells, tinkling of bells of tinkling all the way, OH which recreation it must go up in an open sleigh of a-horse, bells of tinkling, tinkling of bells of tinkling all the way, OH which recreation it must go up in an open sleigh of a-horse. We precipitate by snow in an open sleigh of a-horse all the zones which we will laugh all the way." Example 10:"Rudolf, the red-smelled reindeer had a nose very shining. And if you never see it, you would even say that it rougeoie. All the other reindeer was accustomed to laughing it and calling names. They never let poor Rudolf play in no play of reindeer. "Then one takes care misty Santa of Christmas came to indicate: `Do Rudolf with your so luminous nose, not guide you my sleigh this evening?' Then all the reindeer liked while they shouted outside with the glee, Rudolf the red-smelled reindeer, will downwards enter you the history! "AltaVista is at: www.altavista.digital.comMichael Cunningham (or "sly bacon" as he has now been roughly translated in our office) is at: mcunningham@irish-times.ie