Thursday, June 30, 2011

Speaking In Tongues

Second Life has residents from all over the world. It won’t be long before you hear, or see in text, someone speaking in another language. Don’t let that stop you from talking to them! SL is a great place to acquire at least a smattering of some languages besides your own, and making the effort to communicate across a language barrier can be very rewarding, as well as fun.

There are two tools that can help you cross that language barrier. The first is an implementation of Google Translate built right into local chat. You can turn this on with a Chat preferences setting.
When this is enabled, things that people say to you (in local text chat) are translated by the chat window. The English translation (or whatever language you’ve selected) follows their text entry.

This is great, but it doesn’t solve two problems: it does not work in IM, and it’s only one way. Unless the other person also has translation enabled, they are not going to understand what you say to them. The second problem can be overcome by wearing a translator HUD. By far the best one that I’ve found is Ferd’s Free Google Translator. You can get one at Caledon Oxbridge University or at White Tiger Help Island, among other places.

Ferd’s translator produces a translation in all the languages used by the avatars within its range. In crowded multilingual areas like infohubs and help areas, this can create quite a confusing result in local chat, as it spouts three or four versions of what you just said.

There’s not much you can do about IMs except cut-and-paste translations. You can do this with Ferd’s translator (by “muttering” to yourself on a private chat channel, then cutting and pasting the translated text to IM), or you can use an external browser window to access Google Translate directly and cut and paste from there.

There are two other problems with any machine translation. First, it’s not always accurate, especially for idioms or internet-style abbreviations. Speak as simply as possible and spell out all your words. Be prepared to say it again, in a different way, if the translator mangles your idea badly.

Second, all of these rely on the incredibly popular Google Translate API. Google has announced that they are discontinuing this API sometime around December of this year. This will likely impact SL’s ability to translate for residents.

That worries me a lot. One of my best SL friends has very modest English, and we limp along in French, with a great deal of help from our translators. I’m not sure how well we’ll be able to communicate next year. If you’re in a similar situation, now is the time to start seriously learning a second language. There are actually some language learning classes conducted in SL…worth looking into.

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