The global engineer

Our travel columnist questions the reliability of phrasebook technology.

Que? Pardon? What? Sorry, I didn't quite get that. Could you say it a little more slowly, please? I'm sorry, I don't understand.

Trespassing into terra lingua incognita can be terrifying. It can reduce the most competent manager to a blithering wreck. Phrasebooks are the instruments designed to ease that anxiety and untie the knotted tongue. But thumbing through their tiny pages is often less than fruitful. How often have you stared blankly at an item on a foreign menu, not knowing whether it was pig's trotter, ox cheek or chicken leg? The hovering waiter, increasingly impatient, makes a recommendation as you desperately attempt to find a faithful translation in your phrasebook's 'Eating Out' section.

Recognising this linguistic dilemma, a Collins phrasebook has even included the useful sentence: "Wait, I am looking for the phrase in this book".

Now you no longer need to turn the pages to find the word you're looking for. Your BlackBerry can become your language teacher; just download 'HNHSoft Spain2Go Talking Phrase Book', and you can not only read, but hear the phrase you need.

Lastminute.com provides a different solution to being lost for words. Together with software developer CoolGorilla, they market an application that turns your mobile phone into a translation device. Lastminute also supplies free phrasebooks for your iPod.

With sound, you don't have to decipher the hieroglyphic-style phonetics in your mini-disctionary. Sander Munstermann, inventor of mobile-phone phrasebook 'XS2TheWorld', says, "Even if we can find the words we need in a phrase book, trying to ask where the nearest cash machine is in Mandarin is beyond most of us. The ability of the mobile to speak clearly for you has shown amazing results. People warm to you. It becomes a point of interest, and communicating and getting what you want becomes much simpler."

Plan ahead

But these new digital phrasebooks need pre-planning. If you're diverted from Madrid to Morocco at the last minute, then Spain2Go on your BlackBerry won't be of much help. With iLingo, downloadable onto your iPod, you can order a package with up to four different languages (although you can't access them all at once).

Skype has developed a more personal service that works not just in a handful of European languages but in over 150, including Arabic, Bosnian, Mandarin and Tagalog. Using a Language Line Services live interpreter, Skype provides a pay-as-you-go instant service at any time, anywhere in the world. It employs Voxeo's voice platform to automate the process of transferring the call from Skype to Language Line Services, making it as instantaneous as possible.

But relying on such technology misrepresents what phrase books are for. Unlike a dictionary, they are neither literal nor impartial. With this literal approach, it's easy to get lost in translation. The phrase "out of sight, out of mind" in an EU report was translated into the many community tongues as "invisible lunatic".

Historically, phrasebooks, unlike dictionaries, aren't about translating a string of words. Ever since they were first pulled out of a traveller's pocket, they have conveyed more than mere language. In a phrasebook, the script is already written, the conversation had. For the early travellers, their main purpose was to enable an Englishman abroad to exhibit his superiority. The phrases offered were often in the form of commands. "Fetch me some water" was one of the most common entries in early 20th century editions. The presumptions of 'Routledge's Colloquial Spanish' were typical:

"Why is he poor?

Because he doesn't work.

Why doesn't he work?

Because he is lazy.

Is his father also lazy?

Yes, he is lazy.

Is his mother also lazy?

Yes, but no so lazy as his father."

So how does this new technology capture modern day linguistic nuances? It doesn't. Although present-day digital publishers are striving to make the phrasebook an acceptable piece of luggage in the briefcase as well as the backpack, they still stick to stock phrases. Some of the most popular in today's editions are about eating and flirting - as if these were the two major activities travellers undertake. The business sections are, in contrast, lamentably small. I have yet to discover a digital phrasebook aimed specifically at business travellers.

Of course, by the time this column is published it will probably have been invented, and my words will be out of date. Last month's column - about the biggest plane, ship and hotel in the world - is sadly already overtaken by gargantuan advances. In May, the world's biggest hotel was the First World Hotel in the Genting Highlands of Malaysia, with 6,118 rooms and 34 check-in counters to process guests. Now the 50-storey Palazzo Resort Hotel has just opened, extending the existing Venetian on Las Vegas's Strip to 7,000 suites and with a banqueting hall that seats 10,000 diners. It also boasts of being the first hotel in the world to have its own department store.

So perhaps we need some more phrases in the digital phrase book? "Can I take a car to my table?", "Will it take long to jog to the swimming pool?" "How many miles is it to the restroom?"

Entender? Verstehen? Capisce? Bravo!

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