Sentence Translation on Pocket Translators

Sentence Translation

Many people are confused by the concept of sentence translation, and that's partly because this phrase--as used in the translation industry--is confusing. Another name for it is full text translation, and this is also abused by some manufacturers (but not by Ectaco, whose units we have tested thoroughly and are pleased to offer to our customers). Either name will mean one of two different things, depending on the manufacturer.

Meaning #1

The Ectaco devices like the iTravl and 900 series apply some grammatical rules when you use the full text translation feature. This feature is available for selected models, only. Don't assume it's on a given model. Check the product details to see if it's there.

To clarify how this works, let's look at the Ectaco iTRAVL NTL-2S English-Spanish translator. Suppose you type in a question like, "Where is the red truck" (you can omit punctuation). When this device encounters an adjective preceding a noun, it transposes them so that the adjective is after the noun.

In the example just given, the device will transpose "red" and "truck," thus rendering the correct late into the correct Spanish syntax "Donde es el camión rojo" (again, punctuation omitted).

But suppose you type in a common greeting such as "good day". The Ectaco iTRAVL NTL-2S assumes you are describing the days as being good. So, it will return "el día bueno" ("day good"). That is the correct greeting, also. If you want to use the greeting "good day" instead, use the phrasebook to quickly pull up this greeting rather than typing it in.

Meaning #2

Adding in grammatical rules so that a translation can be rendered involves larger development costs. So, some manufacturers overstate reality. Their devices simply translate the words in the order you entered them, with no regard to syntax. This is what's calledtransliteration. It's still useful, but it's harder for the other person to understand your meaning.

#1 Question about full text translation

"How accurate is it?" The quality of the latest full text translators is much better than a few years ago. And it's faster. You can get any sentence translated almost instantly. You can see some English->Spanish and English->Russian text translation samples in the screenshots at this page and judge for yourself.

The point of the device is to facilitate communication, not necessarily to render academically perfect translations. If you need to translate a novel for publishing purposes, it may be better to pay to a human translator. But the full-text translation feature is what you actually need for fast and easy daily communication.

People will understand each other, and that's what counts. Using full text translation saves you a lot of time that you would have spent to learn foreign words, study grammar, or remember verb conjugation. It takes years to learn a foreign language well. Now you don't have to worry about it.

Now, consider this. Most people born in America can't pass a test of Standard Written English (SWE). People use the wrong verbs (lay vs. lie), wrong modifiers ("truly unique"), wrong pronouns ("I" as a subject and such things as "Her and I did X"), clumsy sentence construction, and a host of gaffes that drive English teachers mad and annoy the heck out of the SWE-enabled. Yet despite this, we all somehow communicate and have produced the largest economy in the world. So, an academically perfect rendering isn't necessary.

You can optimize price, accuracy, or reliability/usefulness, but not all three at the same time. Ectaco focuses on reliability/usefulness, while keeping prices in line. To do that, they have to sacrifice a bit of accuracy and they have chosen not to go after that portion of accuracy that is, frankly, useless. Does this affect your ability to communicate? Not in the slightest. Does it affect your pocketbook? Yes, in a good way.

We know from experience that people can still understand each other, even if we are not using the "correct" words. Americans do this with their native language as a matter of course. Your Spanish interlocuter will understand you, even if a Spanish grammarian frowns at how you say it.

Translating printed text

In case you wish to understand your written correspondence or read books in original language, the Ectaco iTRAVL Deluxe series translators also include a cpen scanner, so you can scan any printed text directly into the Ectaco iTRAVL handheld device and get it instantly translated in the necessary language. You don't have to type it anymore.


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.

Translating sentences

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.

Translating idioms

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.