Audience Dialogue

Software for online translation

As mentioned on our tools page there are several websites that can do online translations at no cost, using software that looks up dictionaries and automatically converts grammatical structures.

The translations produced by these websites are far from polished - as shown by the examples below. In fact, they are hilariously wrong a lot of the time. But if you know a little of a language (such as English) and can understand some of the original text, at least this software can save you from looking up a dictionary over and over again.

We found six translation engines that are reasonably comprehensive - though often overloaded. With some of these you have keep trying, after getting a "site busy" message. All but one will translate entire web pages, and most will also translate text that you paste into their window. All offer versions that cost money, which presumably work better than the free versions.

Name Languages (from English) Limitations
(alias Babelfish)
Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish Max. pasted text 150 words French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish None known
Promt-Reverso French, German, Spanish, Russian None known
Worldlingo (click on "Machine Translation") Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish Max. pasted text 2500 words
Alphaworks (IBM) Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Spanish Translates pasted text only, not web pages.
When we tried to translate from French to English, it translated from French to French! [March 2005: not working - but no great loss]
Local Translation French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese. None known
Intertran 36 languages: all those mentioned above, plus Albanian, Croatian (etc), Czech, Danish, Finnish, Flemish, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Latin, Polish, Romanian, Swedish, Turkish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, and Welsh [March 2005: no longer available online - no great loss None known

To check if any new engines exist, look up the Open Directory under "free translation" - or check this page at It lists engines that translate to and from Arabic, Bulgarian, Catalan, Esperanto, Indonesian, Malay, Papiamentu, Persian, Romanian, and Thai. Also, Geos Oceania has a page on language translation software, with 30-odd useful links.

We tested most of these in 2001, for a client of ours, the World Mediation Forum, which has five official languages. For that experiment, we translated some business documents from English to Spanish, French, German, and Italian, then back again. Systran produced the best round-trip result.

In 2002, we made another comparison, this time only from French to English. It was an article from the newspaper Le Monde for 21 August 2002. One sentence (of moderate difficulty) was:

Avant de convoler avec Mme de Maintenon, le poëte Scarron, qui était un peu polisson, s'est, dit-on, enduit le corps de plumes dans les rues du Mans, avant d'aller piquer une tête dans l'Huisne.
Here are the English versions produced by the various translation engines:
Promt-Reverso (2002)
Before marrying Mrs de Maintenon, the poet Scarron, who was a little bit naughty, covered himself, as it is said, the body of feathers in the streets of Le Mans, before going to prick a head in Huisne.
Promt-Reverso - (2005 - worse!) Im Translator
Before tying the knot Mrs de Maintenon, the poÍte Scarron, who was a bit naughty child, belongs, they are said, coat the body of feathers on the streets of Mans, before going to prick a head in Huisne.
Before getting married with Ms of Maintenon, the poet Scarron, that was a little naughty, itself, said one, coating the body of feathers in the streets of the Mans, before to be going to prick a head in the huisne.
Babelfish (Systran)
Before convoler with Mrs. de Maintenon, the Scarron poet, who was a little rascal, is, says one, coats the body of feathers in the streets of Mans, before going to prick a head in Huisne.
Local Translation [added March 2005]
Before convoler with Mrs. de Maintenon, the poÍte Scarron, which was a little rascal, is, says one, coats the body of feathers in the streets of mans, before going to prick a head in Huisne.
Before about convoler with Mrs about Maintenon , him bard Beetle , thanksggiving was a little naughty s'est , tell on , besmeared him body about feather at the rues any Attic , before outward nick a head at the bailiff.
Before convoler with Mrs. de Maintenon, the Scarron poet, who was a little rascal, is, says one, coats the body of feathers in the streets of Mans, before going to prick a head in Huisne.

On this evidence, Promt-Reverso was ahead of the others in 2002, but went backwards in 2005. Intertran was a laughable last, and Local Translation and Worldlingo were remarkably similar to Systran. Notice how some of them can't translate slightly uncommon words such as convoler (= re-marry - listed in the compact version of Cassell's New French and English Dictionary, which has only about 40,000 headwords). Most of these engines don't recognize place names - even common ones, such as Le Mans - let alone rarer ones such as Huisne (the river that runs through Le Mans). None of them noticed the phrase "piquer une tÍte" (dive headfirst), instead interpreting each word separately to produce the meaningless term "prick a head."

A translation engine may not have the same standard for every pair of languages. For example, perhaps Intertran doesn't try hard with French-to-English, but might be excellent at English-to-Portuguese. Also, these are the free versions. The versions that cost money may be more accurate. (The free software may be last year's version.) In some cases, such as Babelfish, the non-free versions include extra languages. But we found nothing that translates widely spoken languages such as Swahili, Hindi, Urdu, or Tagalog. For some of these latter languages (as well as Latin) there are online dictionaries that translate one word at a time - a much slower and less accurate process.

In general, online translation has been slowly improving. 10 years ago, this software was suitable mainly for amusement, but at the rate it's improving, human translators may be all but out of business in another 10 years' time. A suggestion: if you need a lot of translations from one language to another (e.g. English to your own native language), it could be interesting for you to repeat our experiment.

As you note, our last review of systems was a few years ago and may need updating.  We welcome your comments about your experience with online translation software and services as they evolve, please contact us with your thoughts and suggestions and we'll try to add them to this page, and maybe correct the results reported above. As time allows, we'll re-do the tests to see which software performs better.

In the meantime, human translators remain useful, especially those that have specific professional, business or technical knowledge allied with strong language skills and in-field experience.  For example, if you are interested in a French-English translation for your project, then services such as TB Linguistics offered by French expat Thierry Boyer may appeal to you.  Thierry is based in Noosa, Queensland, Australia, and is an accomplished marketing and communications specialist with over 15 years of multi-disciplinary experience with private and public companies in the USA, Canada, France and Australia. His knowledge, expertise and impartiality enable him to analyze all of your specific needs thoroughly, from end to end, provide cost-effective recommendations and produce high-quality outputs. We have used his services to produce letters and email-based communication in French and highly recommend his work for translating from English to French or vice-versa.

French-English translation for business projects (website of TB Linguistics, Thierry Boyer)