How Electronic Language Translators Work

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
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?