New items in the fields of electronics, telecommunications and publishing offer help for travelers not fluent in the languages of the lands they plan to visit.
In electronics, Radio Shack has reduced the multilanguage computer translator to 31/2 by 53/4 inches, roughly the size of two pocket calculators side by side, weighing three ounces.This gadget, called a Micronta LCD, has 4,000 words in each of five languages - English, French, German, Spanish and Italian - but it cannot decline or conjugate them or put in accents.
If you need to tell a cabdriver that you want to go to the hospital quickly, it will provide you with "hopital rapide," "krankenhaus schnell," "hospital rapido" or "ospedale rapido."
In such difficult circumstances, you could call up words in the 15-letter display and show it to someone.
In what it does really well, the device is fun.
Punch in a word in any of the languages and if it is in the memory, you can whip up the four others suivant-nachste-vecino-pros-simo.
Except for an international bridge game, there is not a lot of call for this, however.
For some common phrases, the translations leave a lot to be desired.
Like all computer-translators - there are at least six portable models already in the field - the gadget is literal and easy to trip up.
If you enter the word "please," for example, the French response is "plaire," or the infinitive, "to please." And if you enter "if you please," you get back "si vous plaire" - instead of the correct "s'il vous plait".
And take "potato": for German it gives "kartoffel," for Spanish and Italian "patata" but for French just "pomme," which would produce an apple rather than a potato, or pomme de terre, with your biftek.
If you ask it to translate the English word "whisky," it will give you a blank, but for "whiskey," it gives you "whisky" without the e as the translation for all five languages.
But this is carping because most travelers would not fuss with an electronic toy to get a word that movies have taught us virtually all bartenders understand.
Assuming it recognizes all the words, the device will translate a sentence or phrase of up to 24 characters, not counting spaces, and render it back as a sentence of up to 35 letters and spaces.
The instructions do not specify these two limits and do not tell you how to get access to the second screenful of words. A spokesman at Radio Shack had to explain how it was done (by using a right-pointing arrow button, which makes the letters scroll by). He said that later instruction books would be clear on this matter.
The gadget also contains a 10-digit calculator and a clock that will give you the time in 128 cities worldwide. The calculator will do conversions for three currencies of your choosing once you have entered exchange rates for them.
The best reason to buy this gadget is for the translating fun.
It will certainly will not help you cheat on a language exam. The Micronta LCD (liquid crystal display) costs $50 at Radio Shack stores, and comes with two button-sized lithium batteries. Extra batteries should be bought in advance of any trip; they cost $2 each. You also need a tiny Phillips screwdriver to open the back to put the batteries in.
If you want a really good translation, get a human being with knowledge of the idiom.
AT&T is now providing a translation service for 140 languages through a service called Language Line. The price is tidy $3.50 a minute, not including phone charges.
AT&T says the service is available 24 hours a day from any phone in the world that can reach the United States.
Its best use is probably in an emergency when nuances are not getting across and time is important. The rate Berlitz charges for telephone interpretation is much lower by the minute - $1.50 - but the minimum time requirement might be at least an hour, according to Berlitz.
The AT&T service was started by a police officer and a Marine Corps interpreter on the West Coast early in the 1980s to ease communication between the rapidly expanding Vietnamese community and such large institutions as hospitals, police departments and government agencies.
AT&T bought the service in 1989 and first offered it to institutions of the sort that were already using it. Late last year, it was offered to consumers, and now it is being promoted as a service for hotels with guests not fluent in English.
The service operates in two basic ways. If you are calling from the United States and want to discuss complex details of a hotel reservation or trip in a language where you feel unsure, you call the Language Line toll-free number, (800) 843-8420, or the headquarters in Monterrey, Calif., (408) 648-7174.
The switchboard person will find a translator on duty with the right language, who may be someplace else entirely. The switchboard will then call the overseas number that you specify and a three-way conversation will begin, with the interpreter as go-between. The phone charges are billed to either your phone or a phone credit card. The interpretation charges of $3.50 a minute must be put on a credit card.
The second use is a translation service for face-to-face conversations overseas. In this case, the call is placed to either of the U.S. numbers and when the interpreter comes on the line the receiver is passed back and forth between you and, say, the doctor. Under optimal circumstances, there might be a speaker phone or two extensions.
Mark Siegel of AT&T would not say how many interpreters were under contract for this service. Many of them are in California, where the project began, but others work from home around the country.
The service is now being sold to hotels for their own use, but a guest who knows the numbers given above can use the service individually while staying in any hotel. The Westin chain has signed up for the service nationwide.
The hotels that promote the service to their guests will place cards in the rooms giving the phone numbers and 35 basic English phrases ("pillow," "local maps," "sanitary napkins") in French, German, Japanese, Spanish and Italian.
As for the basic old-style pocket-sized phrase book, a series new to the United States represents a good buy at $3.95 each. The Travelmate series, published by Chronicle Books of San Francisco, is available for French, Japanese, German, Spanish and Italian.
The series takes the phonetic route, not using Japanese characters at all except for nine pages of Japanese-style menu items and a few pages in the back where larger characters are used to show words as they would appear on Japanese signs: "fire alarm," "pharmacy," and "out of order," for example.
In the other books, the European word appears in its proper spelling first, then, if the pronounciation varies, a simple phonetic version. In the front, the minimal variations or symbols are explained.
These books are at least 120 pages long, in a format 31/2 by 61/4 inches. The paper is glare-free and the typeface is of adequate size.
A number of etiquette tips are tucked under an appropriate word. In the Japanese book, under "Here is a present for you, purezento des, dozo, " it explains customs about gifts and says that it is impolite to open a present in front of the giver although exceptions are made for Westerners. In French, under "an invitation," and its phonetic rendering, it says "take flowers or a cake, but never a bottle of wine."
The publisher says the series has been available abroad for eight years but the books were redesigned for the American market. They are sold in bookstores.
One last item on getting by in a foreign language. When four of us we were traveling in Rome, we ended disputes about how to pronounce the names of unfamiliar streets for cabdrivers when the artist among us took to lettering the names on 5-by-8 index cards - one side for destination, the other for return.
It does eliminate opportunities to practice a language, but it is a good prop. Take along some tagboard cards and a bold felt-tipped marker.