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The Times' Web Site to Offer Translation

Internet: Technology will allow users who don't speak English to use some online services.

September 18, 1997|MARLA DICKERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday announced plans to offer instant, automated language translation on portions of its Web site in a bid to reach online visitors who don't speak English.

The new service, believed to be the first of its kind in the industry, will translate some online content into Spanish, French and Japanese. It will be available on The Times' Web site (http://www.latimes.com) within three months.

The Times is developing the new feature with the help of Alis Technologies, a Montreal-based translation services company that specializes in language products for the Internet and corporate intranets.

"Southern California is the most heterogeneous region in the country," said Harry B. Chandler, director of new business development for The Times. "To better service this audience and its many foreign visitors, we wanted to offer some content on latimes.com in their native language."

The service will utilize technology known as "machine translation," in which a computer "reads" a document in one language and spits out a rough translation in another. Although rapid advances have been made in recent years, machine translation still has substantial limitations and is often incapable of understanding subtleties that would be obvious to a human translator.

For that reason, online visitors will not be able to use the new service to translate most news stories, which are too complex for machine translation to handle. Rather, it will be used initially for tourism information and entertainment listings, which have a more specific and limited vocabulary.

"The translation won't be perfect," acknowledged Jean Bourbonnais, vice president of research and development at Alis. "But it's the difference between providing some information and no information. This is the cutting edge of what this technology can do."

Chandler said The Times hopes to expand the service gradually to include more areas of the Web site.

Bourbonnais looks forward to a day when a hybrid of machine and human translation could make all of The Times' Web site available to readers in any language.

"That's years away, of course, but that is where this technology is headed," he said. "The Internet is going to make it possible to break out of the prison of language."

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