Product review: Speech translators stumble

English may be the universal language of commerce, but when you travel internationally or deal with overseas associates, you will accomplish more if you can understand their language.

If you don't have the time, inclination or aptitude to learn another language, portable electronic translators look like an ideal solution. Unfortunately, these devices are too literal- and single-minded to accurately translate one language into another. "What the market wants is something that will translate on the fly, but that's a lot closer to science fiction than fact today," says Rob Enderle, vice president of desktop and mobile devices at Giga Information Group in Santa Clara, California Enderle predicts that it will take several years before that degree of usability is achieved.

I tried two portable handheld scanners, Image Recognition's IRISPen Executive and Seiko's Quicktionary. Each is about the size of a husky highlighter pen. They scan in words or phrases and then attempt to translate them into a foreign language. Both worked well as text-only scanners, but you're likely to be disappointed by the devices' elementary and error-prone speech-based translations. I attribute most of the problems to the devices' inability to recognise innuendo or inflection.

I also looked at a software-only package, Universal Translator 2000, that achieves modest success at translating entire documents, including Web pages and e-mail messages.

IRISPen Executive

Image Recognition Integrated Systems

List price: $299; translation software modules: $79. A Macintosh version is also available.

Pros: Scans text then transfers it into Windows applications; high text recognition accuracy; translates six languagesCons: Must connect to a computer; limited speech quality with 50% to 60% accuracy; scans one line at a timeI have no qualms with the IRISPen when it's used as a scanner. It's easy to set up and use. After working with it for a few minutes, I was able to use it to reproduce text and small graphics with 90% accuracy. Unfortunately, while its text-to-speech feature strives to understand context, the technology needs refinement. For example, when scanning multiple lines from a half-dozen magazines and newspapers, the IRISPen often recognised the words. A Spanish-speaking colleague, however, described the translated phrases as "tolerably inaccurate but awkwardly phrased."

Just slide the smooth-rolling IRISPen over a line of text. The pen scans one line at a time and sends the translated data to the Windows clipboard, ready for pasting directly into popular word processors, spreadsheets and databases.

The IRISPen uses a parallel port to connect to your PC or laptop. Because it draws its power from a keyboard port, IRISPen includes a small external battery pack so you can use it with a laptop. At 1.5 in. wide by 6 in. long, this gadget is ideal for laptop-toting travelers.


Seiko Instruments USA Inc.

List Price: $269

Pros: Stand-alone, so needs no computer; extremely convenient; includes tutorial video; contains more than 400,000 words and idiomsCons: Limited capacity and speech quality; low audio qualityAlthough it's about the same size and weight as the IRISPen, the Seiko is self-contained and powered by three AAA alkaline batteries, so there's no need to connect it to a PC. That's a mixed blessing. Words that you scan are displayed on the unit's easy-to-read 0.75-by-2-in. LCD. However, because the Quicktionary relies only on its internal memory for data storage, it can read just one or two words at a time, up to 32 characters.

Despite its limited capacity, it can help someone learn a foreign language and to occasionally translate an unrecognized word in a document. Its singular benefit is simplicity. Setup takes just seconds, and six buttons control all functions. A plastic OptiCard allows you to "type" in a word that is impractical to scan, like a newspaper headline or a street sign.

The device's built-in speech module attempts to pronounce the word in English, while it displays the translated word (but doesn't pronounce it), in one of a handful of languages, including French, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish or German.

Because it deals with only one word at a time, Quicktionary offers high word-recognition accuracy - about 90%. A steady hand during the scan is paramount. For example, it initially insisted on translating the English word first erroneously as tint in Spanish. After some practice, it offered the correct translation of primero. Using the bundled earphones, instead of the tiny and tinny built-in speaker, helped to improve the quality of the Quicktionary's speech synthesis._Universal Translator 2000Language Forcewww.languageforce.comList price: $99Pros: Translates 40 languages; can bypass English; translates entire documents automatically; includes entertaining language-learning gamesCons: Low speech-recognition accuracy; requires a computerTranslating a written business document can result in higher accuracy because a computer can more readily understand the context of written words. Universal Translator 2000 delivered 80% to 90% accuracy (excluding technical terms). Although its accuracy wasn't quite as high as the IRISPen's, a Spanish-speaking colleague gave the Universal Translator higher marks for context recognition.

Translating a three-page document took less than two minutes. Using the product's self-reading speech synthesis or dictation features drops accuracy to about 60%, but for either, your computer needs a sound card and microphone.

While most translation products focus on translating from or into English, Universal Translator can translate directly between non-English languages, making it well-suited for use in multinational firms.

Millman operates Data System Services, an automation and problem-solving consultancy in Croton, N.Y. He can be reached at

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More about Giga Information GroupIBM AustraliaImage Recognition Integrated SystemsSeiko AustraliaSeiko Instruments

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