Imagine a place where you meet people from around the world. It doesn't matter what language you speak. Everyone understands everyone else.
Such a place almost exists today. A new feature of the CompuServe on-line service called the World Community Forum invites people worldwide to share ideas about culture, politics, sports, even philosophy. Write a message in English and a few minutes later a CompuServe computer has it translated into German, French, and Spanish. Write in Spanish, and the computer translates into the other three languages. And so on.
Computer translation isn't exactly a mature science. Some translations you can make out: ''I keep an excellent ones to remember Texas (Austin, Houston, Antonio San). My wish: return there with my three young sons. I visited the spatial center of the NASA to Houston. I equally met a French astronaut.''
Others are a little too far out. ''A portfolio manager is tried someone, that other people money too much,'' writes Frank from Germany.
The point is that this decades-old technology, called machine translation, is filtering into the commercial world. The CompuServe forum has already translated more than 1 million words in its first month and later this year plans to offer a translation service for any electronic mail.
Several translation programs are on the market. Intergraph Corporation, which provided the CompuServe program, is talking with word-processor companies, fax-machine makers, and electronic-mail developers. Everyone, it seems, is interested in machine translation.
The problem is that computers can't grasp meanings the way people can, says Jaime Carbonell, director of the Center for Machine Translation at Carnegie Mellon University. If the word is blade, for example, is it the blade of a knife, a turbine blade, or a blade of grass? People can figure it out. Computers can't.