Dysfunctional in Any Language

Louderback: Ectaco Pocket Translator does not prove itself ready for prime time. But it does have some entertainment value.

My latest trip to Europe, with my father, was less Innocents than Irritated Abroad. I packed away some neat new technology, designed to ease the little vicissitudes of traveling. As I mentioned last week, the Garmin GPS V worked out just great—I never had to experience the heartbreak of asking for directions in French. That was a good thing because one of my other tools, designed to translate French and Spanish, did not work nearly as well.

That device, the Ectaco Pocket Translator, promises to make language issues disappear, whether checking into a hotel, trying to find a cab, or ordering a cuppa joe.

If youve ever been speechless in a foreign country, this device sounds incredible. Its about the size of a deck of cards, and it promises to understand a phrase that you say to it, and then repeat it in French, German or Spanish through the speaker on the back.

Its going to work really, really well, I know—but probably not until 2008. This is a device well before its time. Creating sense out of human babble remains a decidedly difficult computer problem—well beyond the simple cheap processor in the Ectaco Personal Translator. And rather than doing word-by-word translation, the device only recognizes about 3,000 common phrases. That sounds like a lot, but in fact its woefully limited.

Because it only recognizes the phrases it knows—you either need to memorize what it can interpret, bring the oversized manual of phrases with you, or pick a phrase using the woefully inadequate user interface—one button, a jog-dial and a tiny, two-line, 40-character display.

And the device has no real on or off switch—pressing the "translate" button supposedly turns it on. But often, that wouldnt even do the trick. Even worse, it would occasionally just babble to itself for no reason. Its awfully disturbing when your backpack starts spewing incomprehensible French phrases, especially when youre on a crowded train, or standing in an airport security line.

But what it lacks in utility, it makes up for in entertainment value. The Ectaco Personal Translator proved the perfect icebreaker during a dinner party in rural France. It turned "thank you for the great dinner" into "it was disgusting," and "you are very beautiful" into "how much?" What better way to break the ice with a roomful of total strangers in a foreign country whose language you dont know?

At $250, the Ectaco Personal Translator is a waste of money. Luckily for the trip, I also brought along a $10 pocket English to French phrasebook. Sure, my pronunciation wasnt perfect, but it certainly helped save the trip—mostly by keeping Dad and me from ordering the yummy sounding Cervelle—or what we in the U.S. would call brains.

Speech recognition and translation still hasnt made prime time, but that doesnt mean its not happening. The U.S. government has a few prototypes that work pretty well, they just cost more than a boatload of Worldcom stock. I know a personal translator will work. Just not this year.

You may have heard of World Phones, and wonder if you can take your phone abroad. The good news is, yes you can. Whatever you do, however, dont give it to a smiling Frenchman named Pierre who says he can make it better. Check in next week for the complete story. Daccord? Send me your travel war stories at jim_louderback@ziffdavis.com.

More "Mind the Gap" Columns: