Microsoft Techfest 2008: New language tools for the web

Microsoft Research shows off some new language tools they're working on.

Craig Simms Special to CNET News
Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.
Craig Simms
3 min read

TechFest 2008 | Language is one of the last big barriers to fall for true worldwide communication -- and when about 70 percent of the Web's content is in English, this puts those who can't speak the language at a significant disadvantage. A few tools were shown off at TechFest 2008 that try and offset this imbalance.

One of the few things on the floor that has already made it to product, Translator is an add-in for Windows Live Toolbar that connects directly into Windows Live Translator.

Rather than having to visit the Windows Live Translator site directly, if a user hits an English Web site they can now simply select a language from a drop down menu built into the browser. The view will then split in two -- the original English site on the left, the translated one on the right. All navigation on the right hand side is then provided in the person's native language. Pretty nifty, even if the added convenience of not having to visit the site means you're locked into Internet Explorer.

You can also add Live Translator services to your site directly by simply copying and pasting a handy script into your source.

Other cool translation tools included a bot for MSN Messenger which can act as an intermediate translator for live conversations, as well as an unreleased Windows Media Player plugin that can translate video subtitles on the fly. The latter should be great for independent video makers, who only have to include subtitles in their native language to increase the international appeal of their video, the rest being handled by the translation engine.

Lingo gives people who use English as a Second Language (ESL) a hand up.

One that's still in the research stages -- Lingo is a fascinating language translation tool for those who use English as a Second Language (ESL). It particularly focuses on selecting the correct wording in a translated sentence, as the vast amount of similes and connotations in English can make selecting the right word in the right context troublesome for a non-native speaker. A given example was the difference between "I see TV" and "I watch TV" -- without any previous understanding or comparison, the non-native speaker may consider these two sentences identical.

A user can input text in Chinese (other languages may be on the horizon), and Lingo then hunts the Web, a built in dictionary and academic articles for existing examples of approximated translations, rather than trying to translate directly. A list of the most appropriate results is then given that the user can choose from. The method is interesting as it also raises the possibility of language translations being able to keep up with current colloquialisms, based on their penetration on the Web.

Lingo also has a paraphrasing feature -- a non-native speaker can enter a phrase in English, and Lingo then goes searching for different possible representations of what the person meant to say, rather than what they typed. It's a two step process that first asks you to define any words with multiple meanings (the example given, "the vital point" first listed a number of meanings for vital -- life, key, major, lively, essential etc), and then gives alternative sentences that might be more applicable to a situation -- allowing our user to choose the word "crucial" instead of "vital".

While none of these tools at this time are perfect substitutes for a flesh and blood translator or learning the language, we can only say -- give it time.

Disclosure: Microsoft Australia covered CNET's travel and accommodation costs while at TechFest.