Why is the full-text translation feature not included in all devices?
The cost of doing this is one reason that sentence translation isn't more common in translation devices. But the main reason is full text translation is very difficult to implement and the user experience can suffer. But they've mastered it for the most popular languages, and it's very likely to be available in the language you need translated (see the specs tab on the individual unit's product information page).
Less than stellar attempts to implement full text translation are notorious for translations that raise eyebrows, which is one reason people have so much fun with the little freebie text translators online. Those problems don't arise with the Ectaco devices, which are much more rigorously developed.
Phrasebook versus full-text translation
When you need to communicate, we recommend you use the phrasebook as your primary tool, followed by the dictionary and then freeform typing. The talking dictionary, audio phrasebook (14,000 phrases), and full text translation tools are all included in the Ectaco iTravl devices.
When you are using the full text translation instead of the phrasebook (in any full text translation software or device), you don't get translations of idioms. If you type in "God bless you," that will be translated as written. But in some languages, that is not the thing to say after a sneeze (e.g. in the Russian language it is "Be healthy"). In some parts of the USA, it's "Did you get any on ya?" :)
So, it would be an inappropriate rendering if you translate word-by-word, though it is grammatically accurate. Just not correct for that language and context, if you get what I mean.
When you are using the full text translation instead of the phrasebook, you don't get verb conjugation. You get the words transliterated, and (with the more recent software) a few rules of sentence construction applied. One reason for this limitation is the complexity of American--which we call "English" but which is really a conglomeration of languages that have conflicting rules of spelling, grammar, and conjugation.
If you were writing the translation tables to translate between a limited language like French and a classic language like Castilian Spanish, your job would be orders of magnitude simpler than for someone trying to provide translation between American and any other language. Even translating between American and English is no small feat ("two countries separated by a common language")..
The phrasebook gets you past the limitations of word-by-word translation (as does the dictionary, where the dictionary also contains phrases as is commonly the case today). This tool is structured and provides accurate translations, including the context. A phrasebook is essentially a table (or flatfile database) that contains an English entry and the corresponding entry in the other language.
You aren't translating in the sense that the device interprets what's being said and knows how to say it in the other language. You are translating in the sense that the device recognizes the English entry and provides the corresponding entry in the other language. And, of course, the translation works in the other direction as well.
The obvious problem with a phrasebook is it must be pre-stocked with possible phrases, and this means it is going to have limits as to what can be translated. It used to be a problem to locate the correct phrase as the electronic phrasebooks got larger, but today that is not a problem because of how they're organized and because of the touchscreen functionality that is part of today's generation of translation devices.
The Ectaco iTravl built-in phrasebooks include 14,000 phrases per each language pair, with human native speaker pronunciation (actually, the narrators are professional speakers--how's that for rigorous development?). Moreover, they include a speech recognition feature for these audio phrasebook phrases. You can just say one of the included phrases in English and get it instantly recognized from voice, translated, and pronounced in the necessary language. The same thing vice versa.
Phrasebook not as limited as you might think
Before you get too disappointed, thinking that the machines fail to deliver real translation, consider this. The two alternatives are using a paper phrasebook (same table method, only far more limited) or a human to translate (normally, the same table method, but with added capability).
How do humans learn to translate? Typically, by memorizing single-word equivalents (same thing as inside the electronic dictionary), hundreds of typical phrases, and many rules of grammar and syntax. However, unless a person can actually think in both languages, no real interpretation and translation of the message takes place. It's essentially the same table lookup as in the electronic devices.
You've been shuttled to those "help" lines in India and dealt with people who have English as a second language. How many of them are you able to comfortably communicate with? They don't have the cultural references and haven't learned enough of the syntax and grammar rules to talk with you fluidly. Haven't you often wondered if they're even listening to you?
Most of them must refer to scripts and canned phrases to be able to "communicate" with you. The point here is that even human translators are not usually doing free-form translation. They rely on the same table methods you find in electronic devices. When they try to go outside the limitations of these methods, well, you are familiar with the results. An electronic translation device is subject to these same limitations.
A person who is thumbtyping like crazy to enter a free-form sentence while you are tapping with a stylus to select a preconfigured one is doing exactly what you're doing--except he's hoping the right translation comes up in his device, while you know it does in yours.
Now, one limitation you have is trying to cover all communication situations with a device that contains a pre-set number of phrases or sentences. There are many ways to address that. The more you use such a device, the more these ways will occur to you.
The ability to translate sentences or transliterate word strings is available on some models. Ectaco has focused on the major languages (e.g., Spanish, Russian, Chinese, German, etc.) in rolling out this feature. Presently, over 80% of units sold by Mindconnection are sold to customers who need to translate in one of the languages that has full text translation. The odds are good that the language set you need will have this feature.
Where free-form sentence entry is available on a device, it is just one of the tools available to help you communicate quickly and accurately.
There are also issues such as how to say "God Bless You" after someone sneezes. A transliteration of this produces the wrong phrase--the equivalent varies in different cultures. And so it is with many such common expressions. The phrasebook solves these kinds of problems.
Today's devices offer translation performance that is several quantum leaps beyond what was available before electronic translators began appearing on the market. They are also far more capable than those early translators. If you take advantage of these capabilities, you will be able to communicate with people who speak other languages--and they with you.