Translating the Web

As the Internet evolves and more languages appear on it, software helps users read Web pages created around the world

April 19, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,sun staff

English speakers prowling cyberspace for news from Yugoslavia are learning the hard way that it isn't called the World Wide Web for nothing.

Erin Barclay is one of them. The head of a Washington, D.C., nonprofit with ties to the Balkans, Barclay trolls the Net daily for whatever scraps of news she can find from the war-torn region. Much is in English. But the most revealing dispatches, she knows, probably aren't.

"There's been e-mails in Serbo-Croatian that are lost on me," says Barclay, executive director of the Network of East-West Women.

In the early days of the Internet, English was the language of cyberspace. While it remains the lingua franca -- used for an estimated 80 percent of Web pages -- its dominance is eroding fast. Surveys show that overseas Internet use is picking up. By 2003, analysts expect nearly half of Web pages to be written in other languages.

The signs of internationalization are everywhere. This month, Prodigy Internet launched a Spanish-language service for the small but growing population of wired U.S. Hispanics. Microsoft unveiled French, German and Japanese versions of Hotmail, its popular free e-mail service. Yahoo! catalogs Web sites in languages from Chinese to Norwegian on its 18 "World Yahoo" Web directories. Internet bookseller Amazon.com recently opened a German branch.

The mushrooming of foreign-language content on the Web presents opportunities and challenges for U.S. Internet users. Using a combination of rusty language skills and the latest translation technology, some are tapping into it.

When he returned to Washington after 18 months in Prague as a consultant for Coopers & Lybrand, Matthew Shinkman found that he could no longer follow his beloved soccer team, Slavia Praha, because local newstands didn't carry Czech papers. Then the Czech-speaking repatriate began exploring the Web and found the Prague sports pages online.

"The soccer team even has its own Web site!" says Shinkman, 26, who is pursuing a graduate degree at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Other subjects are drawing English speakers to the international Web, says Marc Bautil of the Belgium software maker Lernout & Hauspie, which develops language translation and speech recognition technology. Students and scholars, he says, can research foreign-language journals. Cooks can dig up authentic ethnic recipes. An American oenophile can sniff out the latest news on French Beaujolais wine.

"It's really anything," Bautil says of what can be found.

Travel is a big draw. Thomas Thornton of Baltimore says that before their trips every other year to Germany, he and his wife peruse German-language Web sites to snap up deals on lodging or to research train schedules. Thornton, who is bilingual, says the prices he finds are lower than those in the typical English guidebook.

Of course, making it possible for people like Thornton to do this hasn't been easy for the software developers and engineers who create standards for the evolving Internet. One problem has been how to display and search foreign language Web pages. Another is how to navigate the electronic Tower of Babel for those who don't speak the language of the Web pages they're browsing.

Programmers have spent years developing digital standards for transmitting and displaying text in languages with different alphabets -- or no alphabets at all, such as Chinese. The effort, known as Unicode, is starting to pay off.

Today, even complex ideogram-based languages such as Chinese and Japanese can be represented in Cyberspace. Netscape and Microsoft offer free, add-on language packages for their popular Web browsers that give surfers the ability to read sites written in most major European and Asian languages.

The Unicode standard is also being leveraged to create new search engine technology that can handle foreign-language documents. WorldBlaze, a San Mateo, Calif., startup, has developed a search engine that allows Web users to type in key words in English, choose a language, and then dredge up Web sites in which the translated word appears.

To help those who long ago said "sayonara" to their foreign language skills, other software companies are working to improve online translation technology. Search engine Alta Vista was a pioneer. The company's Babel Fish service was the first to translate Web pages on the fly and gets a half-million requests a day.

Internet users can expect to see more free translation tools and services online soon, says WordBlaze's Andy Axel. He said heavily trafficked "portals" like Yahoo! and Internet service providers are keenly interested in using such technology to attract a worldwide audience.

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