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"But I No Speak The English"

April 24, 2003 10:46 IST

The World Wide Lexicon Project may break all boundaries of language. And you can be part of it

What if you could use your Instant Messenger to converse with a foreigner who didn't speak your language? What if you could translate a foreign-language news bulletin automatically on opening your browser? It may soon be possible, if the Worldwide Lexicon Project has its way.

What this voluntary project established by Brian McConnell intends to create is a peer-to-peer system that allows programs (like Instant Messengers) and users to automatically locate and communicate with dictionaries, encyclopaedia, translation servers and semantic networks across the Web. "The Internet has eliminated physical boundaries, but there are still language boundaries," says McConnell. He believes the project has the potential to reduce these barriers to a certain extent, by enabling people to communicate more effectively in other languages using a variety of tools and a wealth of language resources available online.

WWL project is not designed to compete with full document translation services like Babelfish
and TeleTranslator, where the translation is mostly from English to non-English language and vice versa. Instead, it is meant to focus on translation between two less common pairs of languages. McConnell adds that it is inspired by distributed computing projects such as SETI@home ( "The truly innovative aspect of the project is its experiment in 'distributed human computing'," he says. Potential volunteers can go through the FAQ section and sign up if they are interested.

Just like SETI@home taps idle CPUs to crunch numbers, the WWL server will tap idle Internet users. For example, someone proficient in English, French, and Hindi can install a WWL client that senses when a user is available for a language query (based on criteria the volunteer sets). When a WWL server detects such a person, an Instant Messenger window will pop up, requesting the available user to translate a number of words, phrases or even review work from other users. The human translator can choose to attempt a translation or ignore the request.

The servers collect these translations, judge them against other responses, and determine whether to add the term to the database. According to McConnell, by hooking WWL to Instant Messengers, people can automatically translate incoming and outgoing messages. They can also request translations of slang, metaphors and other words not in the dictionary, with the help of volunteers.

WWL uses a small number of Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) methods to provide an interface for accessing the dictionary. This interface will be on the public domain so that it can be used by any other dictionary, whether it is TeleTranslator or
. Any application that adopts the WWL SOAP interface will then be able to connect to any dictionary that uses the WWL interface to look up synonyms, translations of words and phrases to compare and contrast for accuracy.

An Internet-based dictionary using the interface can also make itself available for any other application. MS Word, for example, could access a number of dictionaries and translation services in addition to those that come with the software. Also, if Yahoo messenger
were to adopt it, users would have a translation service available when needed.

McConnell foresees a time the WWL will automatically translate news reports and other topical information. Translators could volunteer to work on small parts of long documents in a translation process called 'segmentation.' These separate translations may then be recombined automatically. While assembling all WWL components and recruiting sufficient translators would appear to be a daunting task, McConnell says he expects the project to succeed because it is a distributed environment. All computing tasks are spread and shared among application developers and translation service providers.

As is the case with most open-source and peer-to-peer projects, WWL's ultimate success depends on what its creator calls "a community of users committed to the project."  Are you game?

Vidya Srinivasa Rao