Just a few years ago, I was certain I could never get by without Kenkyusha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary and the venerable Nelson close at hand. Today, however, these and other weighty tomes gather dust on a nearby bookshelf, banished to obsolescence by my favorite desktop reference, the Web.

In this column I’m going to introduce various Web-based tools for learning and using Japanese. With the growth of the Internet and advances in machine translation (MT) technology, we have seen a proliferation in the number of online translators, dictionaries, study guides and related services. If you are using Japanese on a computer at work or school, here are a few of my favorites sites that can make life a bit easier.

Web-based translation systems are quite new and relatively few in number. They are built around standard Web forms that accept text in one language and generate a corresponding translation in one or more target languages. The interface makes it easy to copy text from another browser window or different application and paste it on the translation window. Best of all, these services are available at no charge.

One example is the Babel Fish site at AltaVista ( babelfish.altavista.com ). This system will translate up to 150 words of text between English and eight other languages. Driven by MT specialists Systran ( www.systran soft.com ), the AltaVista site does a fair job of translating between Japanese and English, and includes a URL form field for when you want to translate an entire Web page.

The Honyaku site at Excite Japan ( www.excite.co.jp/world ) includes simple text translation between Japanese and English, as well as Web page translation for both languages. This site also allows users to search English pages using Japanese search terms, and then gives the results in Japanese. The translation engine for this site is Amikai’s Portal product.

Lycos Japan ( translation.lycos.co.jp ) offers similar translation tools, also powered by Amikai, with an all-Japanese interface. The U.S. Lycos site doesn’t offer translation into or from Japanese (or any other Asian languages).

But while these tools have a lot to offer in terms of convenience, it’s clear that MT, particularly between English and Japanese, still has a long way to go. The technology does a fair job of translating simple material, like product information or instructions, but has a difficult time with more complex content, such as news articles, and is sometimes completely incomprehensible. Therefore, when using these sites to create Japanese, it’s best to remember that the quality of translation might be close to what you paid for it.

A slightly different spin on Web-based translation can be found at Todd David Rudick’s Rikai site ( www.rikai.com ), which employs JavaScript and Perl to create pop-up translations of words when the mouse pointer is placed over them. This site allows users to open another Web page from within the Rikai site and offers support for English, Japanese, Spanish and Chinese.

Online dictionaries are also popular tools for anyone working between English and Japanese. One of the current favorites — particularly among Japanese — is Eijiro ( member.nifty.ne.jp/eijiro ), an online dictionary that boasts more than 1.12 million entries, including an impressive collection of example sentences and colloquial expressions. Inputting the word “jinken” (human rights), for example, returns one definition and 202 sample sentences containing the words “human rights.”

Eijiro has evolved into a savvy reference system that automatically determines the language of the term to be translated. Eijiro is also available as a book and CD-ROM, which includes applications for using the dictionary on a variety of computer platforms and hand-held PDAs. You can purchase it in local bookstores or online at Amazon Japan ( www.amazon.co.jp ).

If you’re looking for resources to study and practice Japanese on the Web, you may want to start with Kantango ( www.kantango.com ), an instructional site that lets you look up words in kanji, kana or “romaji,” build word lists, create quizzes, review terms and more.

There are hundreds of sites devoted to those interested in tackling kanji online, but the best one I’ve seen must be Mayumi Ishida’s Kanji Practice site ( www.dartmouth.edu/~kanji ). The multimedia site teaches 300 kanji characters using brush-stroke images, video clips demonstrating stroke order, sample sentences with audio, print variants and English translations.

Each site offers something for students of all levels. Whether you’re just getting started with Japanese, reading and writing it already, or just looking for good online references to replace your collection of aging hardbacks, you’ll want to add Eijiro and these other sites to your collection of bookmarks.

Send questions and comments for Michael Rollins to michael@tajera.com

The Japan Times: April 10, 2003