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ROAD TEST

Talk to the hand

July 08, 2007|Rosemary McClure;

The concept is enticing: an electronic translator that eliminates the need for language lessons or dictionaries when you go abroad. Just turn it on and let it translate -- and perfectly pronounce -- the words for you. Nothing could be simpler, or could it? We tested three models while touring French Polynesia and found that users need to spend substantial time practicing before trying to use them in public. Most of the time, it was easier just to give up and start the conversation with the words, "Parlez-vous anglais?" or, simpler yet, "Do you speak English?" Luckily, most of the time, the answer was "Yes."

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HOW DO YOU SAY `RESTROOM'?

First look: The Lingo Voyager II Talking Translator weighs 8 ounces, comes in its own carrying case and offers 12 languages, including the main European languages plus Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Hebrew. Among its numerous bells and whistles: a calculator, a world time clock with alarm and a currency converter.

Likes and yikes: The unit has a simple keyboard and can translate and voice more than 240,000 words. Unfortunately, this does not include the word "restroom," but wait -- it does have "toilet" and "bathroom" -- so if you work at it, you usually can find a synonym. The nasal-voiced translator made waiters and hotel clerks laugh when I used it, but they understood the phrases being voiced. The unit is about the size of a large BlackBerry and uses two AAA batteries.

The 411: $199; Magellan's, (800) 962-4943, www.magellans.com; and other retailers.

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HOW DO YOU SAY `DRAINED'?

First look: The big brother of electronic translators is Ectaco's Partner (Model E15C800) Multilingual Talking Electronic Dictionary and Audio Phrasebook. It speaks 15 languages, including Estonian and Latvian. Adapter cards help you add others, such as Tagalog or Vietnamese. It weighs 11 ounces, comes with a carrying case and is about the size of a slim paperback novel. Contains a world clock, calculator, currency converter and alarms.

Likes and yikes: Top honors for the number of words included in a tourist translation device probably go to the Partner, which has 30 million, including medical, business and legal terms. The translator voice is much clearer than that of other units tested; no one laughed when Ectaco's disembodied voice spoke for me, although they did look sort of mystified. Learning how to navigate its touch screen is time consuming. Another downside: It needs recharging frequently, and if you're not carrying a converter, you're out of luck.

The 411: $599.95; available from Ectaco, (718) 728-6110, www.ectaco.com; or from Amazon.com.

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HOW DO YOU SAY `PIPE DOWN'?

First look: Franklin's Speaking Global Translator is the smallest and lightest unit tested -- about the size of a deck of cards -- but it includes 450,000 words in Mandarin, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. It also has games, a world clock and a currency converter. A surprise: There's an MP3 player; you can listen while you look up words.

Likes and yikes: This small device packs a loud voice. Everyone nearby heard the mystery voice emanating from my hand each time I looked up a word. The top part of the unit slides back to expose its keyboard, a handy design element. Another plus: You can change the source language from English to any of the 11 other languages so you can translate Russian into Chinese or Portuguese into Dutch, if you choose.

The 411: $229.95; call (800) 266-5626 or go to www.franklin.com.

-- Rosemary McClure

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