While it may be true that we’re living in an ever-shrinking world, the boundaries of language still constrict the free flow of ideas and information. Some Web sites address that problem — with varying degrees of success — by providing online translations into and from English. Most of the Web-based translation sites allow a user to type or paste a short message into a window, select the languages involved and get a free translation at the click of a button. A test of the sites shows that they can translate simple, basic messages into something understandable. Just don’t expect the translation to be good enough for formal documents.

Altavista’s Babel Fish site gives some good advice on using the service: “Machine translation produces reasonable results in many cases. But you should not rely on it. As in other areas of life, honesty pays. If you want to use a translated text always acknowledge the translator, and append or reference the original text. This will put the translation into the right context and will help you avoid embarrassing misunderstandings.”

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