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Need help speaking or understanding a foreign language when traveling?

One of the latest multi-language speaking translators offers the promise of being the solution you need.

But is it really as good, in practical reality, as it promises to be in abstract theory?

 
 
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Lingo Pacifica Talk Talking Translator

Type and instantly translate words and phrases in ten different languages.

And, at the press of a button, hear them spoken as well.

This is a good but not excellent, mid-grade electronic pocket translator.

 

 

I've often wondered if these devices were as good as they promised to be, and have felt increasingly 'low tech' while carrying phrase books and dictionaries around the world.

The Lingo Pacifica is a good example of a mid-grade unit.  There are better units, but they cost twice as much money.

What I really wanted to establish was whether the Lingo Pacifica presented as a sensible replacement of my old fashioned phrase books and dictionaries.  To succeed, it would need to have at least as much helpful language information, and be as easy, or easier to use.

The unit (and probably all other similar units from other manufacturers) failed both these essential tests.


What You Get

The Lingo Pacifica translator comes in a somewhat fragile box that definitely needs extra protection before being shipped.  Inside the box is the unit itself, plus all the batteries you need (two AAA plus a CR2032 backup battery).  It also comes with a protective carry case, two pieces of mounting velcro, and a set of in-your-ear micro-headphones (there is also a speaker built into the unit itself, so the headphones are not essential).

A 33 page instruction manual, a small quick reference card, and a warranty card complete the inclusions.

The warranty is a one year limited warranty, and if you have to send the unit in for repair, you also must send in $5 to pay for the cost of shipping the unit back to you - a rather mean requirement.

The standby battery is already in the unit, but is protected by a slip of plastic, so it is fresh and unused until you remove the piece of plastic.  Installing the two AAA batteries was quick and simple.  The manual says that the AAA batteries last for three months and the backup battery for a year.

The translator is of clamshell design, and when the two halves are folded shut, a small catch locks them together.  This is sensible - it protects the unit from inadvertent damage or simply being switched on while in a pocket or purse.  However, when I first opened the unit, I didn't realise that there was a catch, and so pulled it open forcefully.  Once I had opened it up, I saw - but inside the unit, hidden from view when closed - a red warning slip advising about the need to release the catch when opening it.  Oh well, at least I remembered my lesson on all future openings!

The protective leatherette carry case seems ill designed for the unit.  Inside the case was an elastic strap, but this could not be mounted over the closed unit, and if placed inside the middle of the unit, it then obscured either the screen or the keyboard.

Perhaps the two velcro strips were to be affixed to the underside of the unit and the base of the carry-case, but there were no instructions about this.  And, while leaving the unit loose in the case was fine when carrying it, when you need to use it, you then have to put the case somewhere while holding the unit, and not forget about the case when you're done using the unit.

Description

The unit measures 4" x 3" x 1" and weights 5.3 oz with batteries but without case.

One half of the fold-over clamshell unit has a small (1 1/8" x 4 1/8")monochrome low-resolution LCD screen.  This screen can display 4 lines, each of 22 characters, or sometimes only two lines of larger characters.

The display shows words only in upper case, which makes them much less legible than all lower case words.  Each character is made up of very few pixels and is blocky and ugly to look at.  The lack of information shown on the screen is a problem, particularly when translating phrases.  Sometimes you can't fit the entire phrase in both English and the foreign language on the screen, and have to clumsily then scroll down, line by line, to see all the words.  The screen does have a backlight.

The lower half of the unit has a miniature four row QWERTY keyboard, plus one extra row at the top and another extra row at the bottom of control keys.  Each of the letter keys does triple duty, with an English style letter, a Russian letter, and either a Chinese, Japanese or Korean letter also.

Note that if you're planning on typing in foreign words in any of these other four languages, unless you've already trained yourself on how to use the keyboard with the foreign letters, you will find it incredibly slow and clumsy to the point of impossibility.  Of course, it is relatively easy to type in words that use our same alphabet from languages such as French or German or Spanish.

The unit has a built in speaker, a volume control, and also a standard 2.5mm socket for headphones.

The device can translate between any of ten different languages :

  • English

  • Spanish

  • French

  • German

  • Portugese

  • Italian

  • Russian

  • Chinese

  • Japanese

  • Korean

The last four languages are displayed both in their own alphabet and in English transliteration.

The translator can take any word from any of these ten languages, and translate it to any of the remaining nine languages.  This is quite an impressive feat, which means that it is equivalent to an enormous number of two-language dictionaries (guess how many different combinations of language - answer at the bottom).

Functionality

I evaluated the unit both as how it works by itself, and also how it works compared to how a traditional phrase book and/or dictionary would work.

I speak some Russian and a little French, and so generally tested the unit against its Russian capabilities, while also ensuring that the dictionary entries and phrases did exist for other languages.

The unit is easy to understand and use.  I managed to do everything by trial and error without needing to read the manual at all.  The manual was clearly written by someone who has English not as their first language, but the imperfect English does not cause problems understanding the instructions.

Words are entered into the unit by typing them (of course).  The keyboard is small (of course) and the keys are soft and spongy with no tactile feedback to tell you that each key press has been entered, although you can set the unit to beep as you enter each letter.  Much of the time, you'll be holding the unit with one hand and trying to type with the other - this is unavoidably awkward, with letters often not being registered as I tried to type them.

As you type a word, the display shows both the letters you are typing and also, below it, three words that start with the letters you have entered.  In theory, you don't need to type the whole word - just enough to cause it to appear below and then you can use the cursor keys to move down to highlight that word and press the enter key to cause it to be translated.

In reality, it is usually quicker just to completely type the word in.

When translating into a non-English language, the word is shown in the foreign script and then 'transliterated' (that is, written as it is pronounced) into English.  The Russian transliteration is strange and not very English - for example, it seems to use the letter 'j' for the 'y' sound.  The word for time (время in Russian) is pronounced Vryemya in English and would normally be transliterated the same way.  This unit shows it as Vrjemja.  And the word for plane (самолёт) which is pronounced samalyot is written as 'samoljet'.

Incidentally, translating the word 'plane' into Russian only brings one definition, for the word плоский, which means plane as in flat; nothing to do with aeroplane at all.  My Oxford dictionary gives six definitions and explains their meaning.

Which leads to a limitation.  Words are translated into foreign words (or vice versa) but no sense of their meaning is given, so you don't know if it is the correct word choice or not.

Some words can be both a noun or a verb, but the translator only gives you one form of the word, which may or may not be the form you are hoping for - you have no way of knowing.

Phrase translations varied in their accuracy.  Some were perfect, others not so perfect, and some phrases were more 'textbook' and formal rather than casual and conversational..  'What time do I need to board' is translated as 'what time do I need to board the boat' - not so sensible if you're asking this about a plane, and an unnecessary addition of undisclosed words.

And if you're looking for a nearby metro station, you have to ask 'is there an underground metro station near here' - the extra word 'underground' being unnecessary.  The shorter the phrase you need to speak, the easier it is for you and the person you're communicating with to understand each other.

How Many Words?

The translator boasts that it has 'over 200,000 words and 23,000 useful phrases'.  But this is the count of all words in all languages.  It actually has only 20,000 words and 2,300 phrases in each of its ten languages.

Is this a lot or not a lot of words?  To compare, my complete Oxford Russian-English dictionary has 185,000 words and 290,000 translations.  My Concise Oxford has 125,000 words and 190,000 translations, and my Pocket Oxford has 70,000 words and 125,000 translations.  My really small Collins Gem Russian dictionary has 40,000 words and 70,000 translations.

So 20,000 words isn't really very many.  I tried looking for words at random, and here are some examples of words it did not have :

accuracy authentic banjo binocular camcorder endear endeavor marinate marine New Zealand solo soloist specialty subtle

Many other words existed in their 'root' form but not in any derivative forms.  For example, the word extreme exists, but not extremely.  This might not seem like a problem when translating from English to another language, but if you're trying to translate something from the other language, you end up stuck if the exact word doesn't exist in the foreign language dictionary.

Grammar

In English, nouns are very simple.  They have no gender, and do not change depending on how they are used in a sentence, except to indicate possession.  The only change is singular or plural.  Other languages have much more complicated grammar, with nouns changing up to six different ways or more depending on how they are used, plus having variously male or female or even neuter gender, and having sometimes not just singular and plural but also 'very big plural' forms.

Unfortunately, you're on your own trying to plug a noun into a sentence because the translator only gives it to you in its simplest form and doesn't tell you anything about the different forms in which it might appear.

Similar considerations apply to verbs - you're not told how to conjugate the verb.  And in cases where a foreign language has different types of verbs depending on if they are related to perfect or imperfect actions, you're again on your own because you're not offered more than one form.

Phrases

Some upmarket translator programs and devices are capable of translating anything you type into them into the equivalent in a foreign language.  I have one such program on my computer and it is very helpful, although not always consistently perfect in its translations.  Pocket portable translators with this capability generally seem to be priced around the $400 mark.

Don't confuse this free text translation capability with the ability of some translation devices to translate phrases.  This just means that it has some stored standard phrases with their translations.  You can look up the standard phrases, but you can't vary them in any way, and you can't type in new phrases that aren't already stored.

Furthermore, finding a stored phrase is not easy.  With the Lingo Pacifica you first scroll through a series of 16 main topics,  and then choose a subtopic.  To test, I went to the accommodation topic, and then chose the room service subtopic.  I expected to get options to order food, complain about problems, ask for more blankets and soap, etc.  There were ten phrases offered, ranging from 'more hanger, please' to requests to order dinners and breakfasts (but how do you then explain what you want to eat and when you want it delivered, I wonder?).

The phrases were very limited and of not much value.

Speech

The translator can speak any word or phrase, in any of the ten languages.  This is helpful - in theory - because it enables you to understand how to pronounce the words you see on the screen (I can never remember, in Italian, for example, when a 'c' sounds like a 's' and when it sounds like a 'k').

The quality of speech was very poor, due to a low sampling rate when the people's voices were recorded.  Native born Russian speakers could not understand what the voice was saying when I played it speaking the phrases.  Some phrases are spoken acceptably slowly and clearly, but others are spoken incredibly quickly.  In some cases the speaker is a woman and sometimes a man.  Phrases seemed to be spoken without much 'foreign' accent - I am guessing that each set of recordings was done by a native speaker.

This feature is great in theory, and does no harm by being present, but it fails to add the value that it could if the sound quality was better and the phrases spoken more clearly, carefully and slowly.

Which is Better - Phrase Book or Translator

  • A phrase book costs about $10; this translator costs about $200.

  • The phrasebook doesn't need batteries.

  • The phrasebook is quicker to use; you can more quickly get to the word or phrase you're looking for, and you can conveniently see other related words and phrases on the same page.

  • A phrase book can include explanatory narrative and more information and some helpful information on grammar.

  • The phrasebook is easier to read.

  • But the phrasebook is only in one language.  The translator is in ten.

On balance, and as appealing as the 'high tech' nature of the translator is, I think my preference is probably for the phrase book.

Summary and Recommendation

At $200, this unit is not cheap.

It is sold through various retailers, including Pro Travel Gear (the same people that created the wonderful Plane Quiet headphones).  If you buy from Outside the box and enter the code 'travelinsider' (without the quotes) into their coupon box, you'll get a 5% discount. They also offer a 15 day return policy (15% restocking fee) which makes it easy for you to realistically try the translator yourself.

Answer to the Puzzle

The answer is 45.  The first language can be translated into nine other languages.  The second language can be translated into eight other languages (the ninth of these was included in counting the language translations from the first language).  The next 7.  And so on.

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Originally published 9 Dec 2003, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
 

 


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