by William N. Tavolga

 The following comments are my own and represent my personal experiences with "translating" programs, particularly Russian-to-English and back. The main reason I provide this article is that I have often been asked about translating programs, and many of the users and potential users of my Volga-Writer program are disappointed that it does not actually translate. Some examples are included with the Volga-Writer program.

Some years ago, BYTE magazine published a group of articles dealing with the problems in generating computer programs that can translate text material from one language to another. The deficiencies in machine translation systems still exist, even in full-sized computers. Text that contains much technical and specialized matter is actually easier for a computer to translate than simple, colloquial material. Essentially a computer does either word by word, or phrase by phrase translation, and is baffled when faced with a choice of synonyms. Every translating program that I have encountered uses a dictionary of synonyms, and will usually select the first one in line. Often this is not the best one to use. English is especially wealthy in synonyms, and this exacerbates the problem, since the exact meanings of the synonyms may vary substantially. The computer has no way of "knowing" which shade of meaning was intended by the original writer. A particularly vivid example of word-by-word translation was supplied by Mark Twain, long before computers existed. He discovered that his famous "Jumping Frog" story was translated into French. Armed with a minimal knowledge of the French language, he laboriously "clawed" his story from French into English. The results are not only hilarious, but are typical of the kinds of transformations that are generated by virtually all computer "translating" programs. Price does not seem to make a difference. I have found that a cheap shareware application will do no worse than a highly advertised product costing hundreds of dollars. The size of the accompanying dictionary file actually makes the translation less accurate, since a multiplicity of synonyms only confuses the translating algorithm.

There are some "translating programs" and "dictionaries" that are, in reality, just lists of synonyms. As such, lists of synonyms are useful, but the user still needs to know the subtle distinctions among the members of a list. Unfortunately, most computer products that are labeled as "dictionaries" are only lists of words. A true dictionary must include a definition of the word, and, ideally, a note about etymology. Very few dictionaries, in general, other than English provide information on word origins. The potential buyer has to investigate the product and not depend on the label and advertising copy.

Considering the inaccurate translations provided by existing software, especially in Russian, it is clear that the user must be fairly proficient in both languages. The computer generated copy is at best replete with word and grammatical errors, and at worst completely incomprehensible. The user then has to edit and rewrite the translation (or find a human translator). For myself, and I am only modestly proficient in Russian, the only applications I find useful are those with good lists of synonyms. This simply reduces the time I have to spend paging through a dictionary. Since it is quite apparent that the use of a computer translating program requires the user to be knowledgeable in both languages, the value of the program is completely lost. A human translator is still most cost effective.

As an occasional crutch, I can recommend one product (out of about a dozen). "Transparent Language" provides CD-ROM texts in many languages, including Russian. See:  These texts are grammatically analyzed and audibly read by the computer, and serve as excellent teaching materials.  In addition, also on a CD-ROM, they provide "WordAce," and this is a word translator with a fairly robust database of synonyms. I sometimes use it from within Volga-Writer, and one can copy words from the text and paste them into "WordAce" easily. With the CD-ROM in place, you can even get the computer to pronounce the words. Aside from some general information on verb conjugation, little or no help on grammar is available. This is too bad, since the plethora of noun cases in Russian requires help on declensions.

Within the past years, the effectiveness of computer translators has improved significantly. This is done by increasing the reference vocabulary, and, more importantly, by including small phrases and word groups that commonly occur. Translating is also done within the context, i.e., what other words are present, thus improving the selection of the most appropriate synonym. There is a price to pay, however, and such applications have become priced in the several hundred dollar range. Even so, the translated text has a formal and stilted style, and the hand of a person familiar with the language is needed. There is an on-line English/Russian translating service that is fairly accurate and effective. See:

Since I last updated this file, there is "Babylon" - a multilanguage dictionary and translator that has been rated highly for the size of its lexicon and the accuracy of its translation. Here is an example, using the first paragraph of Nabokov's Russian version of "Alice":

       The original Russian: 

Ане становилось скучно сидеть без дела рядом с сестрой на травяном скате. Раза два она заглянула в книжку, но в ней не было ни разговоров, ни картинок.

« Что проку в книжке без картинок и без разговоров? » подумала Аня.

Она чувствовала себя глупой и сонной - такой был жаркий день. Только что принялась она рассуждать про себя, стоит-ли встать, чтобы набрать ромашек и свить из них церь, как вдруг, откуда ни возьмись, пробежал мимо нея Белый Кролик с розовыми глазами.

The translation by "Babylon":

 did not become skuchno sit without case next to his sister at скате grasses. Times two It заглянула the record, but it does not have been no calls, no pictures. « that use the record without images and without conversations? » thought june. to feel stupid and sleeping-such a hot day. Just on the talk about themselves, it is the stand to gain ромашек and свить церь of them, as suddenly, where neither возьмись, пробежал passing Ney елый roller from gills eyes.

  • How "with pink eyes" became "from gills eyes" is beyond comprehension. For single words and some short phrases, Babylon is a useful tool [], however.
  • Home

    Major Features of Volga-Writer    Description of Volga-Writer   About William N. Tavolga    The Volga River   Keyboard Layouts   Cyrillic Fonts   Who is Gorm?   History of Cyrillic   How to order