How Electronic Language Translators Work

As Clark W. Griswold, Chevy Chase wasn't afraid to bust out his electronic language translator on his European vacation.
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In National Lampoon's "European Vacation," Clark W. Griswold travels to the Old Country with Helen, Rusty, Audrey -- and his handy foreign language translator. The wife and kids make Clark look like a boob from time to time, but none set him up for ridicule like his trusty electronic device. When the "Pig in a Poke" grand-prize winner brandishes the translator at a French café, his Midwest-accented French earns him a barrage of indecipherable insults from the smiling, caustic waiter.

Back in 1985, it was hard to tell what was funnier -- Chevy Chase or the concept of a language translator that could actually perform well. That's because machine translation, the use of computers to translate from one language to another, hadn't lived up to the hype generated in the 1950s and '60s.


Here's a quick recap: After Georgetown University and IBM developed a machine capable of translating 60 sentences from Russian to English in 1954, scientists predicted that computers would perform near-perfect translation within five years. Not quite. Developing algorithms that could accurately translate foreign languages proved to be enormously challenging. In 1966, in a symbolic shrug of defeat, the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee reported that humans could perform faster, more accurate translation at half the cost. (Score one for the humans.)

Then a breakthrough. In the 1980s, computer scientists devised a way to make translations using statistical probability instead of complex rules based on syntax, grammar and semantics. They directed computers to analyze translated texts to determine the probability that a word or phrase in one language matched a word or phrase in another. The problem? It was difficult to get enough raw material to make the calculations possible, like trying to base probabilities on five coin tosses versus 5 million tosses.

That final information barrier collapsed when the Internet was commercialized in the 1990s. Suddenly, huge amounts of bilingual text became available, making statistical machine translation both feasible and, because of the huge reservoir of data available to it, more accurate than traditional, rules-based methods of translation. When the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency began throwing money around to develop translators for military use, the momentum finally shifted, and hand-held translators moved from the realm of science fiction to reality.

The hardware and software born from this R&D eventually trickled down into consumer electronics. Now companies like Franklin, ECTACO and Lingo feature a stunning -- and stupefying -- array of electronic translators. Before you rush to get yours, with dreams of speaking fluent Spanish as you stroll the streets of Madrid, keep reading.

Por favor.


Text to Speech? Speech to Speech? Types of Electronic Language Translators

The Lingo World Traveler, an example of one of the more basic types of language translators
Image courtesy

For a device that's meant to simplify the lives of travelers or foreign language students, it's amazing how confusing the product category can be. Search the sites of a few leading brands, and you'll quickly see two basic kinds of devices -- dictionaries and translators. Electronic dictionaries enable you to look up a word and find its equivalent in another language. They offer no insights into the structure or rules of a language, so while they can tell you the French word for "ketchup" -- it's ketchup! -- they won't help you ask, "May I please have some ketchup with my french fries?"

Translators do more. They organize content around thematic subjects -- hotels, restaurants or airports, for example -- making it possible to locate commonly used expressions or phrases that obey proper rules of syntax and grammar. As a result, translators are ideal for people who want to travel to a country without learning the native tongue, while dictionaries appeal to students or travelers with a good working knowledge of the language(s) of their destination.


The rest of this article will focus on electronic translators, but that doesn't end the winnowing process. That's because translators come in three basic configurations based on how a user inputs a query and how the device returns results.

Non-talking translators, such as the Lingo World Traveler, are the most basic type. These devices come with a full QWERTY keyboard for user input, a flip-up screen with an LCD display and some number of preloaded foreign languages (we'll cover this a bit more when we discuss the features of electronic translators). Once travelers locate a word or phrase, they select the target language, and the device displays the translation on the screen. They can then say the translation or let a native speaker read the screen.

Text-to-speech translators like the Franklin Electronics 14 Language Speaking Global Translator represent a step up. They do everything their non-talking cousins do, but they offer one additional feature: speaking the translation in the target language. This gives travelers much greater flexibility when trying to communicate. They can try to repeat the spoken translation, let a native speaker read from the screen or let a native speaker listen to the device.

Finally, speech-to-speech electronic translators add another layer of sophistication by allowing the traveler to navigate the system using spoken commands. Some devices in this category, such as the ECTACO Partner 900 series translators, maintain a full keyboard, allowing for both text and voice input, while others, such as the ECTACO iTRAVL Speech Translator, eliminate the keyboard altogether. Using either, a traveler can say a word or phrase and then wait for the device to return the appropriate translation, which is both displayed and spoken. Très utile, non?


What Can an Electronic Language Translator Do for You?

The Franklin Electronics 14 Language Speaking Global Translator, talks to you, too, giving you an idea of just how awful/awesome your French accent is.
Image courtesy

Before we dive into specs and features, it's important to understand what you can and can't do with electronic translators. You can't pick up a translator, start reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" and have Harper Lee's prose come out the other side, perfectly translated in the target language. Such machines, known as universal translators, don't yet exist on the consumer electronics aisle in 2012.

Instead, think of electronic translators as digital phrase books. They store lots of ready-made phrases in the device's memory, enabling users to query the database and return results based on the search parameters. To streamline the process, manufacturers usually organize words and phrases into 10 to 15 categories, like basics (hello, goodbye, thank you) and local transport.


Once you select a phrase category, you can drill down into subcategories and then into a specific list of phrases. At that level, the machine's translation accuracy increases dramatically. When you say or type, "I need an ATM" while in the bank category, the machine searches a much smaller list of possible translations, increasing the odds it will find the best match. It may respond with, "Where is the nearest ATM?" which isn't a direct translation but is an accurate representation of what you meant.

Not impressed yet? Consider the advances in speech recognition that have made speech-to-speech translators possible. In these devices, a sound card converts analog sound waves into a digital format, breaks down words into phonemes, the smallest units of spoken language, and then compares the phonemes to a dictionary of stored sounds to find a best match. On the flip side, when a translator speaks a word or phrase appearing on the screen, it's employing text-to-speech, or TTS, technology, a two-step process. In the first step, the computer analyzes a word, breaks it into phonemes, then decides how long and at what pitch to say each phoneme. Then it pulls matching sounds from a database of prerecorded human sounds and assembles it into an audio file.

Algorithms, however, could be the most important technology in electronic translators. Everything begins with a database of parallel texts in two different languages. The texts could be translated works of literature, United Nations speeches or Web documents. Next, a complex set of operations identifies short matching phrases across sources and measures how often and where words occur in a given phrase in both languages. Finally, the software uses this information to build statistical models that link phrases in one language to phrases in the second. An electronic translator uses similar calculations when a user drills down into a phrase category and speaks or types a phrase. The computer analyzes the input, finds a high-probability match and returns the results. It may not allow an American to discuss the causes and effects of the French Revolution with a Parisian, but it can help her get directions to the monument marking the location of the Bastille.


Electronic Language Translator Specs

Even if you don't care much about how translators work, you do care if they're easy to use and carry. You'll want to consider the following basic specs while shopping for electronic translators:

Battery requirements -- OK, two choices here. Many electronic translators run on two AAA batteries, so you'll be packing backup batteries. A few models come with a lithium-ion rechargeable battery (like the one in your cell phone or tablet). They last longer than single-use alkaline batteries, but they cost and weigh more. And you may need to pack adapters to use the device's charger, designed for U.S. power supplies, in other countries.


Dimensions -- Most translators with a fold-up screen, like the Franklin Electronics 14 Language Speaking Global Translator have a footprint similar to an iPhone (4.5 inches by 2.3 inches, or 11.4 centimeters by 5.9 centimeters) when the display is closed. The ECTACO iTRAVL Speech Translator is a bit larger, coming in at 6 inches by 3.2 inches (16 centimeters by 8 centimeters). You could stuff either device into a shirt pocket, although you run the risk of looking like a tourist.

Weight -- If you're looking to lighten your load, evaluate the weight of electronic translators carefully. Some weigh in at about 4 ounces (less than an iPhone), but others are twice as heavy. And the Lingo eTERPRETER 12-Language Talking Translator tips the scales at a full 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms), which could really slow you down after a long day of sightseeing.

Display -- Most basic electronic translators come standard with backlit, black-and-white LCD screens. Even if their translations excel, these devices can feel like old-fashioned calculators. If the visual presentation of information is important to you, then you'll want to look for more advanced translators with color screens and even touch sensitivity. The ECTACO Partner 900 series translators boast 3.5-inch (8.9-centimeter), full-color, touch-sensitive screens that allow user input via a supplied stylus.

Connectivity -- Not all electronic translators allow you to connect to a personal computer for data exchange, but some do. This is important if you want to customize the device's dictionary with your own entries. For example, the Franklin Electronics 14 Language Speaking Global Translator comes with a USB hub designed for a mini-USB 1.1-compatible connection. Once you connect the translator to your Mac or PC, you can download a personal dictionary of up to 500 words from your computer to the device. This is great if you're trying to communicate about a highly specialized subject area or if you need occupation-related words or phrases.

USB connectivity is also necessary on translators that second as audio players and e-book readers, as many ECTACO models do.

Don't forget the accessories, too. Many speaking translators come with earbuds or headphones, and a few throw in a USB cable. Optional carrying cases are also available for most models.


Electronic Language Translator Features

Like other gadgets, electronic language translators have succumbed to feature bloat. Many offer an amazing array of features and functions that have nothing to do with translation. Personally, I doubt most folks are going to throw out their iPods and Kindles because their translators come with an MP3 player and an e-book reader, but perhaps they'll consolidate to a single device to save some space in their carry-on luggage. The same holds true for notes and task management -- it seems unlikely that serious business travelers will use those tools on an electronic translator when they have perfectly good apps on their tablets or cloud-based solutions that they access through their tablets. Still, if those kinds of extras appeal to you, you can find them on many translator models.

There are a few non-language-related features you should consider, however, especially if you're a frequent traveler. Many electronic translators come with currency and metric converters, as well as clothing and shoe-size converters. Local and world clocks can also be handy to help you keep track of changing time zones. And you may also appreciate a factbook, which includes key data and statistics about countries around the world.


The most important features, of course, are those related to translation. Some translators function as bilingual dictionaries, just like the English-to-Spanish, Spanish-to-English dictionary of your high school days. Even though such devices ship with a single language, they may be expandable, courtesy of a secure digital (SD) card.

If you're planning a trip to more than one country, think about a multilingual translator. Many devices in this category come with 12 to 15 languages, but a few offer a whopping 49 languages! Don't be seduced by that number. In fact, machines with more languages often have smaller dictionaries covering only the most necessary words or phrases. For example, the Lingo World Traveler has 44 languages, but it's limited to 980,000 words and phrases. On the other hand, the ECTACO Partner 13MT900 Grand Multilingual Talking Electronic Dictionary and Audio Phrasebook features 12 languages and 7 million entries. The model also offers another high-end feature: human pronunciation. Not only that, the device can recognize speech in any of its core languages.

A final language feature worth noting is whether an electronic translator provides full text machine translation. This enables you to type in text and have it translated using the statistical methods we discussed earlier. This comes in handy when you need to translate, say, road signs or perhaps a prescription. The ECTACO Partner 13MT900 supports text translation in 130 languages. You can either type in text or -- get this -- input it with a hand-held scanner, which comes standard with the device.

Heck, had Clark Griswold taken an electronic translator as powerful as this on his European vacation, he might have avoided several embarrassing situations. Then again, not even the most sophisticated model would have helped him navigate the traffic circle in downtown London. Hey, kids, look: Big Ben, Parliament.


Author's Note

When I took French in college, my instructor (Monsieur Jacobi) cringed every time I spoke his mother tongue. He was always supportive, but I think he was relieved to find out I was majoring in biology. Perhaps I would have been a better French student if I owned an electronic language translator.

Related Articles


  • AT&T Labs, Inc. "Text-to-Speech Frequently Asked Questions." (May 2, 2012)
  • ECTACO, Inc. "Electronic Translators." (May 2, 2012)
  • Franklin Electronic Publishers. "Translators." (May 2, 2012)
  • Jian, Hua-Li, Frode Eika Sandnes, Kris M. Y. Law, Yo-Ping Huang and Yueh-Min Huang. "The role of electronic pocket dictionaries as an English learning tool among Chinese students." Journal of Computer Assisted Learning. July 2009. (May 2, 2012)
  • Lingo Corporation. "Multi-language Translators." (May 2, 2012)
  • Mone, Gregory. "Pocket Translator." World Changing Ideas: Electronics and Robotics. Scientific American. September 2009.
  • Stix, Gary. "The Elusive Goal of Machine Translation." Scientific American. March 2006.
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