How Can I Read Foreign Language Web Sites?

April 27, 2009

in communication,Internet

by Gabe Goldberg

Since this Tiplet is written in in English, I assume that most people reading it surf the Web primarily in English. And fortunately, there’s abundant English Web content, so we’re usually happy.

But occasionally I — a native English speaker with two long-ago years each of French and German classes but bare fluency in them — must read a non-English Web site or understand a bit of non-English text on a Web page I’m perusing.

Rather than dig out a something-to-English translation dictionary or call a multi-lingual friend, I use various online translation tools to render what I need into mostly/somewhat/marginally intelligible English. The good news is that tools are easily accessed and simple to use. The bad news is that they won’t produce elegant, literary, or sometimes even basic English. But they’re free, so give them a whirl.

Translation tools

Translation tools

SDL is a free Web site for translating Web pages and text. You paste original text into a dialogue box, select from the 19 from-to language pairs, and click FREE Translation. Or, if you’re so inclined, clicking Human Translation allows specifying a full document to translate and specifying many more language pairs.

Among Google’s many free tools is a bare-bones translation facility providing a Web page on which to enter text or a URL, and From/To pull-down menus selecting languages ranging from Albanian to Vietnamese.

Perhaps the easiest facility to use is the Firefox Hyperwords add-on providing Translate (among many other options) on the browser’s Web page context menu. So translating just requires highlighting a text snippet, right-clicking, selecting Translate and the desired language pair, and reading the translation in place on the Web page, replacing the original text.

As a cautionary observation, though, remember that some supposedly English-language Web sites, which are in fact unintelligible, were likely machine-translated. An example, a review of a Sharp television set, begins:

Sharp LC 26SB24U Products released at the beginning has been to us at the appearance of design and quality performance of a wide range of visual impact, airframe, speakers and the base of the split-type suspension design, with elegant traditional champagne distinguished design, gives a new look feeling; On the other hand, new RGB-LED backlight system performance pure deep black, the same we are looking forward to long!

So — as colleagues advised when I asked about using computers to translate language — remember that most automated tools are only good for quick checks or word verifications. If you’re creating a complex multi-lingual Web site or simply need an important one-time translation, consult someone who not only knows the original language inside and out and is a native speaker of the target language, but also has translating skill and experience.

Gabe Goldberg (, a lifelong computer pro and technology communicator, has written three books and hundreds of articles for audiences including techies, baby boomers and senior citizens. He enjoys sharing tips and pointers that help people use and have fun with technology.