June 27, 2004, Updated September 13, 2012

Babylon hopes to be the desktop equivalent of a dictionary or encyclopedia. Nothing can be more frustrating for Internet users than using language translation tools.

Most services which offer translation of text provide the general idea of a given sentence or document rather than the precise translation. In the process, vital errors can occur that could alter the actual meaning of the passage.

An Israeli language-translation software company called Babylon has made great strides in correcting the inaccurate science of computer translation. Babylon is a desktop translation tool that gives users access to 25 professional dictionaries in 14 languages, each containing more than three million words and phrases. Available languages include English, French, German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Japanese, traditional and modern Chinese, Korean and Swedish.

Alex Azulay, the chief executive of Babylon, a language-translation software company based in Israel, told the International Herald Tribune that he believes while so-called machine translation is years away from being able to give precise translations of full texts, in the meantime, innovative companies like Babylon that translate words or phrases can get much of the way there.

Babylon offers a host of information from some 2,000 glossaries that users can obtain with just a click of their mouse. These glossaries offer professional information ranging from computing and law to chemistry and music. When a user runs into a word he does not understand he can click on it and receive an instant explanation. “We give information on almost anything you can think of, from Harry Potter to medical glossaries,” Michal Frenkiel, the company’s vice president of marketing, told The Jerusalem Post.

Consumers pay $29, for a year’s online subscription, or $49.50 for perpetual use. Once the software is loaded, users can click on any text in any desktop application and a small pop-up window appears with the relevant translation of a particular word or of an expression such as ‘wild goose chase.’ Babylon also tries to help people correctly pronounce foreign words. Clicking an icon called Say-It produces an audio recording of the word.

New software released by Babylon last month added an additional feature: writing aids. For example, a French user who is writing an e-mail needs the English equivalent of the French word ‘aller.’ This word can be translated to English as either ‘go,’ ‘move,’ ‘travel,’ or ‘pass.’ When translating, Babylon will display each possible English translation alongside its corresponding translation back into French, letting the user choose.

For every English term one needs translated, Babylon’s software also displays a complete list of conjugations in possible tenses and forms, together with their description in the user’s native language. The user can then directly paste the appropriate conjugation into the edited document.

“The goal is to make writing as easy as the reading,” said Azulay, 44, formerly a co-founder and VP International Operations at Mercury Interactive Corp., the world’s leading provider of software testing tools.

Some 42 percent of Babylon’s business is in Europe, and Azulay said he expected the expansion of the European Union to increase demand for translation software. “This year the focus is on Europe,” he said about his sales efforts.

The company currently has about 24 million users worldwide. Many signed up when Babylon gave away the software for free starting in 1997. In 2001, the company switched to a pay-per-use model and has since sold hundreds of thousands of licenses, Azulay told the IHT.

Babylon has also developed a number of customized applications for business users. In the last 12 months it has signed contracts with Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Philips, Ford, Nike, Pfizer and Deutsche Bank, among other multinational companies. Versions of the software for corporate use sell for slightly more, about $60 per user, and include CDs and technical support.

Customized versions include internal glossaries that give information rather than pure translation. For example, Babylon built an online product catalog for Nike that all of its employees can access, and a catalog of part numbers with descriptions for Lufthansa, the German airline.

If required Babylon will also include a corporate glossary in each solution. Intel, for instance, has thousands of specific abbreviations and project names that relate directly to its business, and employees often find it hard to gain access to this information.

“Most people in an organization simply don’t have an easy way to access this information and they lose a lot of time looking for it,” says Azulay. “We bring up the information instantly from whatever source necessary. It doesn’t even matter if it’s in a different language.” Other Corporate clients include companies such as Amdocs, Nice and Swiss bank UBS.

While Azulay acknowledges that competitive free full-text translators like Babel Fish can be useful for people who have no understanding of a particular language, he says that errors introduced by ‘gisting’ can leave people with a working knowledge of a language more confused than when they started. Babylon’s advantage, he said, is that the software gives users with a working knowledge of a language a more precise understanding of the particular word or phrase that has them stumped.

“Our vision is to become an information-at-a-click company,” says Azulay. “Babylon can be a real companion for anyone reading documents, browsing the Internet, or looking at e-mails. Tools like Babylon should sit on every desktop. Today people have a dictionary or an encyclopedia in their homes and offices. We’ll be the desktop equivalent.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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