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ON THE MOVE / CAROL SMITH

Executive Travel : Hand-Held Translation Devices Are Improving, Getting Cheaper

August 24, 1995|CAROL SMITH | CAROL SMITH is a free-lance writer based in Pasadena

It is the dream of many international business travelers to be able to carry a hand-held device they could speak into and get an instant spoken translation.

While such a device is not quite here, the next best thing--text-to-speech translation--is gaining in popularity--or at least selling better--among American travelers.

Hand-held speaking translators are already popular overseas, said Sara O'Malley, president of Berkeley-based Best Speech Products, the marketing affiliate for Berkeley Speech Technologies Inc., one of the original developers of text-to-speech synthesis technology.

Berkeley licenses its technology, which converts text to speech in 13 languages, to a number of manufacturers of hand-held translation devices, as well as for other uses, such as talking computers for blind people and interactive computer teaching programs.

The market for hand-held speaking translators is just starting to take off in the United States. The devices are extremely popular in Asia, O'Malley said.

Many Japanese business people like to use them because, while they may read English well, they may be self-conscious about their pronunciation, said John Oberteuffer, president of the Voice Information Assn. in Lexington, Mass.

Oberteuffer publishes a newsletter that tracks the voice-recognition and voice-synthesis marketplace.

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One reason such devices haven't caught on as quickly over here is that "most people in the U.S. don't travel abroad in situations where no one speaks English," he said. American business people tend to assume they will be able to speak English in foreign countries and be understood.

Although the devices can be awkward to use and limited in scope, they have come down in price, and there are occasions where it's important to be able to come up with a word or phrase to get your point across.

The hand-held translators look much like pocket-size calculators with small keyboards. Generally the user can enter a word or phrase and touch a button to see the translated version, complete with accent marks and masculine and feminine designations. Newer models also speak the phrase.

To find a phrase, the user can either scroll through a category, such as "shopping," to find phrases pertaining to that category, or enter a key word, such as "doctor," and find phrases containing the word.

Seiko's models, for example, can contain from 40,000 words and 300 phrases to more than 100,000 words and 1,800 phrases. Seiko has licensed the Berlitz phrase books.

Users are confined to the pre-programmed phrases contained in the translator's memory. The translators are designed to handle the most commonly encountered words and phrases, said Ginny Jones, customer service manager of Seiko's consumer products division. They do not recognize proper names.

Today's hand-held translators are much better than those of a few years ago, said Bernard Liller, senior account manager for SimulTrans, a document-translation firm in Mountain View, Calif. Liller, a Frenchman and fluent English speaker, likes to travel with a translation device for other languages.

"It's very convenient," he said. Liller uses a translator to check certain words in documents the company is translating and finds it helps him get around in countries where he doesn't speak much of the language, such as Germany.

Although text-to-speech synthesis technology is already more than 10 years old, commercial applications only started hitting the market three to four years ago, said Oberteuffer.

And in that time, not only has the storage capacity of the devices improved, but so has the quality of the voice output.

"You'd never mistake it for a real human voice, but most are quite good," Oberteuffer said.

Indeed, such advances have inspired a spate of new products.

"Seiko Instruments seems to be spearheading the introduction of speech-to-text translators to the U.S. marketplace," said O'Malley.

Franklin Electronic Publishers in Mt. Holly, N.J., also produces translators, as do Vtech and Countkey in Hong Kong and Inventec and Transtek in Taiwan. The Asian manufacturers produce a range of translators that include Korean-English, Malay-English, Chinese-English and Arabic-English.

In addition, Ectaco, based in Long Island City, N.Y., offers translators in Russian-English, Polish-English, and Portuguese-English models. It expects to be coming out with Latvian, Greek and Vietnamese translators next year.

Hand-held translators are useful for business travelers who may not speak the language and don't want to feel quite so lost when they are traveling in a foreign country, said David Thomasson, director of marketing for the consumer products division of Seiko Instruments USA Inc. in Torrance.

Seiko's research among business travelers demonstrated that despite the proliferation of powerful laptop computers, people still wanted something small, easy to learn and simple to use, he said.

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