Among the new products in the $10bn (£6.13bn) language translation business are instant translators for Web sites, chat rooms, e-mail and corporate intranets. Globalink announced this week at Internet World in Chicago a translation-enabled free e-mail service. The service will remain free while in beta form, but may change to a fee-based model, a company spokesman said.
According to Global Reach, the fastest growing groups of Web newbies are non-English-speaking: Spanish, 22.4 percent; Japanese, 12.3 percent; German, 14 percent; and French, 10 percent.
An estimated 55.7 million people access the Web whose native language is not English. But the translation market is seemingly endless. Only 6 percent of the world population speaks English as a native language (16 percent speak Spanish), while about 80 percent of all Web pages are in English. "You can imagine the opportunities to reach those people who don't speak English," said Kathleen Levesque, a spokeswoman for Alis Technologies, in Montreal.
The leading translation firms are mobilising to seize the opportunities. Such as: Systran has partnered with Alta Vista and reports between 500,000 and 600,000 visitors a day on babelfish.altavista.digital.com, and about 1 million translations per day -- ranging from recipes to complete Web pages.
About 15,000 sites link to babelfish, which can translate to and from French, Italian, German, Spanish and Portuguese. The site plans to add Japanese soon. "The popularity is simple. With the Internet, now there is a way to use U.S. content. All of these contribute to this increasing demand," said Dimitros Sabatakakis, group CEO of Systran, speaking from his Paris home.
Alis' technology powers the Los Angeles Times' soon-to-be launched language translation feature on its site. Translations will be available in Spanish and French, and eventually, Japanese. At the click of the mouse, an entire Web page can be translated into the desired language.
Globalink offers a variety of software and Web translation possibilities, including a free e-mail service and software to enable text in chat rooms to be translated. But while these so-called "machine" translations are gaining worldwide popularity, company execs admit they're not for every situation.
Representatives from Globalink, Alis and Systran use such phrases as "not perfect" and "approximate" when describing the quality of translations, with the caveat that sentences submitted for translation should be simple, grammatically accurate and idiom-free.
"The progress on machine translation is moving at Moore's Law -- every 18 months it's twice as good," said Vin Crosbie, a Web industry analyst in Greenwich, Conn. "It's not perfect, but some [non-English-speaking] people don't realise I'm using translation software." With these translations, syntax and word usage suffer, because dictionary-driven databases can't decipher between homonyms -- for example, "light" (as in the sun or light bulb) and "light" (the opposite of heavy). Still, human translation would cost between $50 and $60 per Web page, or about 20 cents per word, Systran's Sabatakakis said. While this may be appropriate for static "corporate information" pages, the machine translations are free on the Web, and often less than $100 for software, depending on the number of translated languages and special features.