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Fishing for the Right Word

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A Review of the Program Idea Fisher, Translation News, 1991

There is so much hype in the computer world that one is sometimes tempted not to believe anything. Software mongers would have you believe that simply by installing their shells, you will suddenly be able to perform six tasks at once. Database vendors would convince you that their query language will automatically find you a thousand new customers. And, perhaps worst of all, in our profession advocates of machine translation and computer assisted translation would have you suppose that they have already taken over from mere humans or will do so in a trice.

In the midst of all these demonstrably false claims it is a relief to come across a program like IdeaFisher. Not only is its present reality solid and interesting but the promises its creators make for the future actually have some hope of coming true. Although it is not of immediate practical use to translators, one day it surely will be, and its basic premise is of interest to all who deal with words. We all of necessity use dictionaries in our work, and those of us who care about accuracy of expression also make frequent use of Roget's thesaurus or other books of synonyms.

IdeaFisher is essentially a kind of imploded thesaurus, one you can walk through instead of constantly darting back and forth from index to contents or trying to determine the right word to hunt under. And as you saunter through this program, you will in many cases be able to find the word you are looking for simply hanging there, as though in a vast walk-in closet with many aisles. And there hanging all around it will be all the other words and concepts you would normally associate with it, just in case you decided to choose another instead.

Let's take a single example to stand for countless others. If you look up the word "camel" in Roget's Thesaurus, you will not get very far. That worthy tome will give you one listing under "beast of burden," and this will refer you to the heading "animal," scarcely adding anything to your understanding of the word. If you enter the word "camel" in IdeaFisher, however, it is almost as if the semantic heavens had opened all around you. You can literally probe through almost all possible associations with the word "camel" to the point of beginning to move through semantic space and semantic dimensions. The very first menu of categories IdeaFisher proposes for "camel" provides some notion of the scope of how broad these associations can be:

commercial transportation/
East Asia/Southeast Asia/South Asia
geographic features/mountains/wilderness/parks
mammals/wild animals/domesticated animals
Middle East/Afghanistan to North Africa/Greece
smoking/cigarettes/tobacco use

And all this from a single, relatively uncomplicated word—we are already presented with a plethora of possibilities, and this is only our starting point. It does not require much reflection to see how each one of these categories can be associated with "camel." If we decide we are most interested in terms of Middle East/Afghanistan, etc., we need only click our mouse on that phrase, and we will be presented with yet another menu, this one listing sub-categories of possible interest:

VAR/EX (countries/cities/islands)
VAR/EX (geographical features)

This is in fact IdeaFisher's true main menu, and whichever one of hundreds of possible categories you choose (in the case of "camel," sixteen), you will see something like this semantic network, with certain changes or additions for "VAR/EX (varieties/examples)," depending on the category. If you click your mouse on "countries/cities/islands," you will find a list of places where camels abound, such as the desert, the Dead Sea, the River Euphrates, and the Gulfs of Aden, Aqaba, and Oman. If you follow up under "PEOPLE/ANIMALS," you will be reminded of the distinction between one- and two-humped camels, visualize a "crusader," a "muezzin," or a "fakir" as possibly riding your camel, and even find such modern associations as "political prisoner," "Shiite Muslim," and "Salman Rushdie." The heading "peoples" will give you a list of most of the national groups likely to deal with camels.

Each of these subheadings will provide from a few to a few hundred possibly pertinent listings, though some may be far-fetched for your purpose. Although the program contains only 60,000 words, it is the 800,000 linkages between them that make it a useful reference work. This award-winning program was devised over twelve years of research involving 250 scholars and librarians at a cost of over three million dollars, and its primary stated purpose is to help businessmen and writers use free association techniques to brainstorm for ideas and marketing plans.

Now that we have seen how this program works in the present, let's indulge in a bit of futurology and consider how it will one day develop. IdeaFisher is already extremely large, taking up 18 disks or 6MG of hard disk space, but by using CD ROM or other storage techniques it is easy to see how it could be expanded. It is by no means difficult to envision a bilingual version of IdeaFisher, which would make it possible to juxtapose the verbal and conceptual riches of two separate languages side by side. In nuts and bolts terms for translators, this would make it feasible to juxtapose technical vocabularies in two or more languages, permitting the translator to choose between various possible terms. On a more elevated plane it would become possible to make direct comparisons and point out contrasts between a pair of languages.

Perhaps one of the most appealing features of IdeaFisher is that it provides a cultural inventory of a language, that in its passages and byways one can make a survey of that language's riches and/or its linguistic shortcomings. Thus, one would be able to place English and German or English and French side by side in specific fields and see which one provides better insights into that area. One might even be able to do so with British and American English and thus provide a trustworthy basis for determining which variant is more supple, more subtle, or better endowed in a variety of fields, although this might just run the risk of destroying the myth that British English surpasses the American variety. As one author has written, no hay ningun idioma que no necesite subsidio de un otro. Most important, in the long run such an expanded bilingual or multilingual version of IdeaFisher (which its creators foresee for the future) could certainly help conscientious translators in their often arduous search for the correct term or word.

The program is for the time being rather expensive at $595, but it is a tool certain to delight all those translators and writers who get to know it. It exists in PC or MAC versions and can be ordered directly from the manufacturers, Fisher Idea Systems, Inc., 2222 Martin Street, #110, Irvine. CA 92715 or by calling (800) 289-4332.

Or you can go directly to their website by clicking here.

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