A reader in an e-mail wonders “whether any of those translator pens really work”:

Have you seen them? You can scan a word or a line of text and it’ll OCR it and it’ll give you a translation. … I tried googling for reviews but I haven’t found any sources that look reliable. So I thought of asking people I knew, and then I thought of the LH community, because if anyone would be interested in a pen that translates into 30 different languages, it would be you and the people like me who frequent your website.

As I responded, “I never heard of such a thing (sounds like the flying cars and tricorders we were supposed to have by now), but then I’m very much out of step with the twenty-first century.” So I’ll pass along his questions: Do you have any personal experience with them? Do any of them work reasonably well for translating single words, especially in the more heavily inflected languages? (My correspondent doesn’t care about translating phrases, though supposedly some of them can do this too.)


  1. During college, I worked in my school’s law-school tech-support help-desk, and once helped a student set one up. It worked amazingly well, which is to say, pretty poorly, but its mere existence was so amazing that I and my co-workers were willing to give it a huge pass on the actually-working-well-enough-to-be-useful front. The student never came back for further assistance with it, which either means it worked very well for him, or (more likely) that he soon gave up on it after realizing that his English was much better than its.
    Of course, this was several years ago, and one hopes the technology has improved a bit since then.

  2. Max Pinton says:

    I haven’t used those, but it reminds me of two credit card-sized electronic dictionaries I bought in Japan in the late ’80s. One did E-J/J-E and the other did J-Kanji, so both of them together were actually useful. Of course, the number of words and length of definitions were pretty meager but that they existed at all seemed like science fiction.

  3. I’ve seen ads for these pens for years, but never actually seen one. I think the time has probably passed for a pen based translator, because we now have smartphones that can do OCR and translation. Some of the developments on this front are really amazing. Pleco is a very useful tool for Chinese, and Google Goggles is just awesome.

  4. As far as browsers go, and virtual pens, I use hyperwords (available for Firefox and Chrome, but not yet IE). You mark text with the mouse cursor, and a menu opens with a submenu for translating between a large number of languages. hyperword guesses at the language of the original, but that is just a suggestion that you can ignore by choosing a different menu item. I use it to translate bits of Chinese and Russian in the comments at this site into German and English. The translations usually make good sense.
    A very nice feature of the translation is that hyperwords replaces the marked text by the translation in what your browser displays. There is no extra subwindow or hover-help stuff popping up that you would have to shove to one side. hyperwords does this apparently by hooking into the display procedure and modifying the downloaded html page in your browser (not the source html page on the server, of course). To return to the original text of the page, just press F5 for a refresh.
    In addition to translation menus, hyperwords has submenus for transferring the text into an internet search (Google) or a Wikipedia reference search. It also offers operations for facebook, ebay, twitter etc. about which I know nothing, and a settings area. For instance, I have set hyperwords to check for “references” in instead of the default wikipedia.en.

  5. Seen in this weekend’s FT: “The couple has two children”. Translated into English by such a pen?

  6. The Wizcom Quicktionary won a prize for innovation at the CeBit show in Hanover, Germany, a number of years ago. It’s an Israeli product, and as I live in Israel and Hebrew is not my mother tongue, I checked it out. Alas, at the time it could not translate from Hebrew to English. I recall that it was quite popular among university students. If you’re struggling with an English-language textbook and need to clarify a few words on the fly . . .

  7. Dearieme: No, just the level of education, and lack of sub-editors, these days.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    What is wrong with “The couple has two children”? One couple, two children, the stereotypical American nuclear family.

  9. There’s nothing wrong with it in American English, but the Brits have been known to do weird things with collective nouns.

  10. As far as scanning a line of text and translating it, scanners have come a long way the last ten years. If your last brush with a scanner was back when you had to correct all the badly interpreted words by hand after scanning each page, it has gotten much more sophisticated. Someone recently told me about some sort of scanning app, I forget what now, and I discovered that the program that came with my scanner will save a document as a searchable pdf. From there I would imagine it’s a short step to copy and paste into Google Translate.
    The only problem is portability. We have very portable computers now in the form of laptops, but I don’t know of any portable scanners.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma, that’s what I suspected was the case.
    To me, “a couple” is too precise and includes too few persons to be a collective noun. I remember the first example of plural agreement I learned: “The family were at church”. OK for the plural agreement, because “the family” must have at least three members, and probably more, at least an unspecified number. With “a couple” referring to individuals married to each other, there is no uncertainty about the number of persons involved, so “the couple have two children” would sound wrong to me.

  12. m-l
    “The family were at church” is incorrect in AmE. You would have to say “The family was at church”.
    Also, “The committee meets every Tuesday”, and “The football team always loses”.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    At school I learned British English, which is where my example comes from. Nowadays I would not normally use plural agreement with a word like “family”, but I don’t find it shocking when I read it. But “The couple have two children” I find bizarre.

  14. I once taught British English, from textbook obviously, since I don’t have a native feel for it (What is an “anorak” and how do you pronounce it?–best just play the tape.), but when I was doing TOEFL prep classes got into it more. But to me a committee or a team is a number just as knowable as a couple, at least to the person who knows enough about the group to talk about it, and doesn’t make any intuitive sense to use the singular for what is a plural number of people. I never ran into the “unspecified number” rule. Plural is plural.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma, I was not talking about a “rule” I might have been taught, just about my own feeling (after living in English for decades). If I am reading a newspaper or listening to a conversation, I don’t necessarily know how many people constitute the family, committee or team they might be referring to. But a “couple”, in the sense of ‘partners in an intimate relationship’, always refers to “two” human beings.

  16. So…
    correct in AmE:
    The couple has two children. (singular-one couple, consisting of exactly two people)
    The family was at church. (singular-one family, of unspecified number of members)
    The committee meets on Tuesday. (singular-one committee, of unspecified number of members)
    correct in BrE:
    The couple ____ two children.
    The family were at church. (who knows why)
    The committee meet on Tuesday. (like fingernails on a blackboard)
    The sentence appeared in “this weekend’s FT”, which Teh Google tells me is the London Financial Times, who might be expected to use only British English. In fact, a quick visit to their U.S page says the outcome of yesterday’s election was the “Most polarised Congress in modern history”, so they do use BrE even when they’re writing for us.

  17. So where have dearieme and Paul run off to? They’re the ones who objected to “The couple has two children”. (They are I believe Scottish and Australian.) Is there no explanation?

  18. Nijma – “What is an “anorak” and how do you pronounce it?” – an “anorak” is an obsessive saddo and you pronounce it “trainspotter”. I’m going to be an anorak here and add that it’s an Inuit (I assume) word, “a weatherproof jacket of skin or cloth, with hood attached, worn by Eskimos”, which was adopted by young men in rainy Britain as a useful if style-free outer garment handy for wearing while standing on railway station platforms jotting down the numbers of passing diesel engines. (Anoraks have lots of pockets for holding notebooks, pens, torches and so on.)
    Oh, and “the couple have” would be standard in BrE, but I suspect you’d find mostly “the committee meets”, singular, while “the family” could be “was” or “were”: Google News searched on only UK news sources gives 100 “the family was” to 150 “the family were”.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma, an anorak is basically the same as a parka.

  20. Ah, thank you, the anorak was a bonus. Our parkas are not necessarily rain-proof though; they do have hoods.
    Trainspotting is an underappreciated endeavor. Model railroaders depend on them when customizing engines to get the right number of bumps or whatever on the top and thingies on the wheels so they will be accurate and to scale. That is, the model railroaders who want to portray a particular line and are not content to use the standard type of engine as it comes from the box.

  21. mollymooly says:

    In BrE, an “anorak” is a style-free garment that keeps out cold and rain, worn by schoolboys at their mothers’ insistence. A “parka” is a more stylish garment with less weatherproofing, worn by fashionable mods riding Vespas.
    To my mind, “The committee meet on Tuesday” is not as good as “The committee meets on Tuesday”, which gets twice the ghits on But it’s definitely “The couple have two children”, which is 10x gh on I can attempt an introspection, but it would be no more insightful than y’all’s outrospections.

  22. Depends whether you want to see the collective as a unit or as an assembly of parts.
    “The committee were divided on this issue”.
    “The committee was unanimously in favour”.
    “The couple were divorced last year”.
    “The couple next door has two children”.

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