Babble on

English is the mother tongue of most of the Web -- but not necessarily of the people who surf it.

By Janelle Brown

Published November 2, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Fifty-four percent of the Web's users live outside the United States. By 2003, this number will be 70 percent. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Web's content is only available in English -- there are nearly a billion Web sites in the U.S. alone, almost all of which are in English only. This digital-culture hegemony means that anyone who wants to really get into Net culture is all but forced to learn "our" language.

These are the statistics that Shuki Preminger, the soft-spoken CEO of Israeli start-up Babylon, recites to me in gently accented English. These numbers are music to his ears: As long as most of the Web's content is in English, and more and more Web users are not fluent English speakers, there will be a need for the translation software his company makes. The Babylon software is a free downloadable client that can translate any English word that you click on -- whether it's a word on your desktop or on a Web page -- into one of nine languages (Spanish, Japanese, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, English and Hebrew). Select a word, and it will instantly pop open a little window with a definition in English and a translation into your language of choice; the words in that definition are hyperlinked to yet more definitions. And if you're still confused, you can use the application to automatically insert the word in question into your favorite search engine.

Babylon was conceived in 1995 by a company that owned the rights to an English-Hebrew dictionary. A year after its official product launch, Babylon claims 2 million users, the majority of whom reside in Germany and Brazil. Preminger calls his product a "living dictionary" -- not only is the 3 million word dictionary constantly being updated by the company to include common colloquialisms and unusual terminology, but its users can contribute words and definitions as well. (Besides foreign translations, the company is also pushing the product as a useful way to find definitions for obscure English words.)

"We are trying to open up English Web content to the world," explains Preminger. Babylon probably won't be much help to someone totally unfamiliar with English, but it can assist anyone with a rudimentary understanding of the language and grammar. As he puts it, "Babylon teaches you English, but you don't feel like you're learning English."

So far, the New York Times, ICQ, Sony, ZDNet and Lycos Japan have signed on as partners for distributing the client. At 7 megabytes for a single-language database, however, Babylon is not a practical download for the slow-of-modem.

So, on Monday the company introduced a product called BabyloNet -- a server-side translation device that Babylon intends to license to Web sites that want to attract foreign audiences. BabyloNet partners will include a "translate this" button on their Web sites that, when clicked, will pop open a Javascript frame that offers instant translations of words on the site in any of the nine Babylon languages. The new BabyloNet boasts the International Herald Tribune as one of its first clients.

Of course, the Web has seen these kinds of services before -- notably, the famed Babelfish service, which translates whole sentences into foreign languages in grammatically dubious fashion. Babylon, on the other hand, passes over whole-sentence translation in favor of simple and quick translation assistance. It may not be the most useful software tool for monolinguistic Americans, and as of yet Babylon offers no service to translate foreign-language sites into English. But as more and more non-English-speakers become members of the Net community, it's high time the rest of the Web started reaching out to them.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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