How Do You Say "Low End" in Dutch?
By Brendan I. Koerner
Several years back, I visited an American pal who was hunkered down in West Berlin. On a lark, we took a Soviet-era train to the (intermittently) lovely Polish town of Szczecin, to catch some of the sights. (Yes, our travel plans were made during a Bitburger binge.) En route, my friend whipped out an electronic German-English dictionary, crowing that his girlfriend had dropped upwards of $100 to buy him the gadget. Seemed like a fair price at the time—your own personal, handheld translator? Pretty impressive circa 1999.
Nowadays? Um, not so much. We've reached the point where the gadgets cart at New York's fabled Port Authority Bus Terminal—located right by Gate 200, if you're interested—sells Franklin electronic translators for under $30. Just in case you've come into the city for a date, and want to impress the lucky lady (or bloke) by ordering the night's paella in Spanish. Never saw the day coming when overcoming God's post-Tower of Babel wrath would be so cheap, but there you go—good thing memory prices have slid so precipitously in the past five years. After the jump, the rundown on what'll help you overcome the world's polyglot reality, despite the fact that you've got next to nil in your checking account. PLUS: You want boomboxes? Lordy, we got boomboxes. Do we ever.
The first name in electronic translators, of course, is Franklin. Not only do these folks make the lion's share of translators you'll find at shops worldwide, but they also do a fine business in digital handheld Scrabble dictionaries and bibles. The latter product line isn't truly low-end, in that the cheapest models (which offer the complete King James or New International versions) are close to the $50 mark. Still, that's an exceedingly fair price for 791,328 words of wisdom, right?
Franklin's bread-and-butter, though, is those translators, which range from a simple Spanish-English version to a behemoth that can handle a dozen tongues, from Czech to Turkish. What's amazing is the price break that Franklin gives you for upping the number of languages you want to process—the Spanish-English model lists at $24.95, while the 12-language unit goes for just $15 more. The catch is that the single-language translators are a lot more comprehensive; I wouldn't try asking your 12-language Franklin how to say "conflagration" in Hungarian, lest you fry the things circuits. Oh, and the Spanish-English model also features Hangman, the perfect way to pass a 14-hour layover at the Cuzco bus station.
The drawback on all the Franklin products is the screen, typically a three-line LCD that'll slowly kill your eyeballs over several weeks of travel. The folks at The Sharper Image (a Low End Theory favorite) understand this weakness, which explains why they're, um, scientists cooked up the 12-Language Talking Translator, which recites useful nuggets in a voice akin to that of WOPR. It's fascinating to note what languages the Sharper Image crew chose to include here—aside from the obvious Western tongues, they also plugged in Japanese, Mandarin, and Swedish. That last one's a true headscratcher, given that a) Swedish is the native tongue of just 9 million human beings, and b) about 8 million of those folks speak another language fairly well, judging by my (admittedly limited) travels in that quasi-socialist paradise of pricey beer and athletic blondes. Swap in Arabic or another more widely spoken language, and they would be in business. (Private note to my friend Jeff, who married a Swede and now resides in beautiful Gothenburg: Sorry, my brother, but you know I speak the truth.)