Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why bother with a translation dictionary

It may seem a bit strange to be developing a translation dictionary after 10 years of game programming. Well that sort of thing happens after traveling around the world.

I am an American living in the Netherlands. I fall under the classic programmer stereotypes: cannot spell, dyslexic, poor at languages. Now these traits do not help with speaking a foreign language. I am grateful English is my mother tongue. It would be hell for me to learn it. Never the less, I found myself trying to learn Dutch.

Learning Dutch isn't the easiest thing in the world. It sits somewhere between English and German on the language spectrum with a bit of French thrown in just for fun. To most English speakers, it sounds like German. To most Germans, it sounds like a strange non-understandable singsong dialect, with some growling and throat clearing added for emphasis.

After making the decision to stay in the Netherlands, I signed up for the beginner Dutch course offered by the local community college. Although I did well in the class, I struggled with remembering the words. So, I started writing all of them down. I wrote down every word in every chapter. I started keeping the list in Excel.

As I was doing this, I found that the Dutch-English dictionaries sucked. 90% of the time, I couldn't find the Dutch word I was looking for. The dictionaries were designed for Dutch speakers trying to learn English, not the other way around. So, only the root verb form was included in the dictionary. I found this very frustrating.

It was because of this frustration, I started making my own dictionary. I initially made it for the Windows Mobile CE, since that was the platform I was most familiar with. Yet, once I saw the iPhone for the first time, I knew it was time to switch. My goal was to make a dictionary that you always have with you; that was easy to use; and you could find everyday words from the newspaper. Thus Street Dutch was born. It was my first iPhone web application.

I believe web applications are the thing of the future. For rapid deployment and development, it is the way to go. As mobile phone data plans become cheaper and the data speed increase, it will become the platform of choice. Yet, things are not there yet. I could not get the performance levels I wanted. So I started investigating developing a native iPhone application.

During my investigation, I came across another online translation dictionary, Interglot with six languages. As it turns out, the owner, Arnout van der Kamp, lives just a short distance from me. We met and made a deal. I develop the mobile versions he supplies the dictionary.

As a trial run, we made a mobile version of the Interglot website: It is a light weight website designed for all modern mobile devices. It is not a smooth as a webapp, but that is the price you pay when you want it to run on a wide range of mobile devices. The next step is to create a native iPhone version.

What about Street Dutch? The plan is to release the native iPhone version of Glot first, then create a version designed more for language learning than for translation.

In the next post I will go into a bit more about publishing the website.

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