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Typing in Tongues : Software Lets Users of Conventional Word Processors Write in Any of 23 Languages

June 16, 1989|MARIA L. La GANGA | Times Staff Writer

For employees of Nguoi Viet, the major Vietnamese-language newspaper in Orange County, putting out an edition was real drudgery before Victor Nguyen came along. Writing stories wasn't the problem; typesetting was.

And the Vietnamese language--with its flurry of accents over nearly every word--was at the heart of the difficulty.

Until recently, there was no computer software to handle the complexities of Vietnamese. So Nguoi Viet employees had to type stories into the computer without the accents, print out a master copy of each story and advertisement and fill in the accent marks by hand before the paper went to press.

"Look at all those words on the newspaper page and imagine going through and writing those accents in," says Ruth Talovich, a copy editor at the five-day-a-week paper. "The hooks on U's and O's and the hats on the E's. Just glance through a page and think about how long it takes."

It doesn't take all that long any more, thanks to a software package called Diplomat that Nguyen developed as a hobby while working as an electrical engineer at Teledyne Inc. in Torrance.

Today, the major software makers are placing greater emphasis on the foreign-language market, industry experts say. Most of the word-processing software in use around the world comes from North America, and consequently uses the English language and Roman alphabet.

Claris Corp., an Apple subsidiary, is making a push into Central and South America, and Microsoft Corp. is marketing its products in nearly 20 languages through more than a dozen international subsidiaries.

But most of the non-English products are not available in the United States. Microsoft, for one, only markets foreign-language software overseas, which accounts for 48% of its current business, according to a company spokeswoman.

Nguyen is trying to fill the domestic software gap.

In 1986, when Nguoi Viet began using Diplomat, it was available only in Vietnamese; today, it allows English-language software to speak in 23 different languages, from Albanian to Urdu. And Nguyen has left the corporate world to devote his time to VN Labs, his Newport Beach firm that manufactures the polyglot product.

Diplomat does not alter software packages like WordPerfect or Xerox's Ventura Publisher. Commands and help messages from the software are still in English, but Nguyen's program internally translates keystrokes entered by the user on an English-language keyboard into the appropriate foreign characters. Key-top labels help users remember which characters are where. For example, if a user were typing in Greek, the computer would change the R to the corresponding Greek letter. The Vietnamese language uses the Roman alphabet, but needs a large number of additional accent marks, which the Diplomat software provides. The foreign characters are displayed on the video monitor and in printed text.

With existing software and personal computers, "a user who wants to write or publish in their own language could not do it," Nguyen said. "Now, with our (programs) they can use all the features of existing English word processors--and more importantly, the desktop publishing software--and write in their own language."

Wayne Stewart is a spokesman for Ingram Micro D in Santa Ana, the nation's largest wholesale distributor of IBM- and Apple-compatible personal computer software, peripherals and accessories. Although he has not seen Nguyen's software, he said that it "sounds like it's almost universally adaptable, and that gives it a huge market."

"That's pretty slick, what he's done," Stewart said. "His product is apparently not only compatible with all kinds of software but all kinds of hardware too. You can buy what's on the market, plug in his program and go to town."

That's an awfully grand description for a product with such humble beginnings. In 1983, when Nguyen was an electrical engineer at Teledyne, a friend created an astrology program in Vietnamese.

But there were only English-language character translations available at the time--software that printed the words but not the accents crucial to Vietnamese.

"I told him that if you print the results, it doesn't look right," Nguyen said. "It doesn't mean anything without the accents."

So Nguyen took it upon himself to tinker on his personal computer after work. He had had some experience with video display terminals from a stint at TRW, where he was employed as he worked his way toward a master's degree in electrical engineering at Loyola Marymount University.

It took about a year to get a working model. Soon after that, Nguyen showed Diplomat's precursor to Orange County's large Vietnamese publishing community of more than two dozen newspapers and magazines.

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