Franklin TG-450 12-language translator
Franklin's advertising material boasts that the TG-450 can "instantly access more than 400,000 words and travel phrases". As all marketing departments know, big numbers help sell products1. And as all linguists know, big numbers can be fairly meaningless when it comes to counting "words" in languages. We need to get behind the numbers and understand:
Sure enough, a closer inspection of the fine print reveals that 317,000 of these "words" are in fact inflected forms. Across 12 languages, including languages such as Russian and Czech with noun declension systems, and Turkish and various Romance languages with highly synthetic verb systems, that's actually not such a huge number2. As we'll see below, it turns out that the news is still quite good for those of us dealing mainly with French, and bad for those dealing with some other languages. For now, let's turn back to the issue of vocabulary coverage
400,000 minus 317,000 split across twelve languages still leaves some six thousand or so words and phrases per language. That's still a bit meaningless. What we really want to know is: for a typical word that we might expect to be able to look up, how likely are we to find it?
Well, it turns out that 6000-ish carefully chosen words still isn't all that bad. Franklin claim that the TG-450 is "perfect for students and business travellers". So I threw at it a range of words that I think students or, in particular, business trevellers are likely to come up against, plus one or two that they probably won't. The results are generally positive: the TG-450's dictionary appears to have reasonable coverage of areas such as food and drink, motoring, medical vocabulary. I would have expected an electronic dictionary to have slightly better coverage of computing and gadgets. Other than that, it falls down mainly in forgiveable areas such as informal words and abbreviations (it has calvados but not calva; décaféiné but not déca), less usual words. Vegetarians are generally catered for, but vegans aren't. Occasionally, it will help the user to have a good knowledge of synonyms. I couldn't find Internet café, but cybercafé is in.
Impressively, the availability of vocabulary appeared to be consistant across all languages. So if you want to find a Czech or Turkish translation of calvados, you'll be in luck. In my spot testing of various words and language pairs, then provided the word was available in one language, I didn't find a combination that didn't work.
Inflection, inflection, inflection...
I was also pleasantly surprised to find that pretty much any inflected form that I could throw at the machine was found. So if you search for viendront, pourront or finiraient, the machine will correctly tell you that these are forms of venir, pouvoir and finir respectively. The translator copes with subjunctive forms such as puisse and veuillez. And even past historic forms such as vinrent and coupàmes-- not to mention the imperfect subjunctive form (nous) donnassions-- are found! Bearing in mind that the machine will also search for misspellings of these conjugated forms, that's pretty comprehensive searching. Unfortunately, the machine will only tell you which verb a particular form is from: it will not tell you which tense (or form) it is. But armed with a bit of basic knowledge (e.g. "forms ending in -ait and -aient are imperfect"), the ability to search for conjugated forms could still prove useful for students with some basic grammar knowledge that want to practise reading French.
Unfortunately, the range of inflections known to the machine is less comprehensive for other languages. A stark example is Russian, which retains an inflectional case system. This means, for example, that the word for "day", день, has the genitive form дня "of the day". The TG-450 finds the former but not the latter (except in a couple of phrases). Similarly, it will not tell you directly that книгу is the accusative form of книга ("book")-- though by accident the spelling corrector sometimes comes to the rescue in cases such as this. Similarly, I tried a couple of conjugated forms of the Turkish verb olmak ("to be"). It found the present tense forms oluyor and olur only in a couple of phrases from the phrasebook.
Given the comprehensive support for French inflection, this poor support for some of the other languages was disappointing and will limit the translator's usefulness as a tool for understanding written signs and text in these other languages. However, the TG-450 could still be useful for vocabularly reinforcement in these languages via the built-in games (see below).
1. For example, this is why it's possible to buy camcorders with 500x digital zooms
that generate a 250-line picture...
All comments and material contained on this page are accurate to the best of the author's knowledge.