PDAs and the Interpreter
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What are PDAs and how do they work?
PDAs (often called "Palms", although
Palm is just one of the brands available) are
small electronic devices that capture, organize
and manage data. As the name suggests, they
are small enough to fit on your palm. You input
data using a special blunt-ended stick called
a stylus (or, for the less organized among us,
your fingernail!) to write on the screen. Alternatively,
the truly Palm-devoted can buy full-size keyboards
that fold down to the size of the PDA itself,
making them easy to transport. Best of all,
a PDA can communicate with your desktop computer,
allowing you to easily and quickly transfer
data from the computer to the PDA and vice-versa.
How much does
it cost? What kinds of software are available?
Is it expensive?
Here is the good news about PDAs: the price
tags are considerably lower than what you would
expect to pay for a notebook or even a desktop
computer, and you can manage to do most of the
tasks you use your computer for now. The most
basic models (2MB of memory, monochrome display)
are currently retailing for under US$100. For
an interpreter wanting to load several language-related
software applications (called "apps"
by the Palm-savvy), 8 or 16 MB of memory is
probably a better choice to allow lots of room
for storage; devices offering this capacity
start around US$150 for a monochrome model.
If you want color display, optional built-in
MP3 player and other bells and whistles, prepare
to get out the checkbook: models offering these
features are usually in the US$300-$500 range,
with newer and more tempting models coming onto
the market constantly. You're probably best
advised to browse your local electronics shop,
then check on-line prices. It's a toss-up these
days which will end up cheaper.
As for software oops, "apps"
the sky is the limit here. The best-known
source for PDA software is probably www.palmgear.com,
which offers the user the chance to browse and
download literally tens of thousands of titles.
And more good news for the penny-pinchers among
us: Palm OS apps typically sell for between
US$9.95 and $19.95 each, and are written by
individuals or small companies which often give
great, personal support. A surprising number
of useful apps are even available free. You
can expect to pay more for apps developed by
larger companies (typically US$24.99 to US$69.99)
but these apps are usually more sophisticated
and offer capabilities that are practically
indispensable for those of us who want to kiss
our desktop computers goodbye (ability to read/edit
Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, capacity
for storing large data files on memory cards
or sticks, etc.). Most PDAs run the Palm OS
(operating system), and there is far more software
available for this system. If this is a consideration,
you might want to avoid models offering the
"Pocket PC" OS.
PDAs have their good points, but at the end
of the day they ARE tiny, and the way their
operating system is configured means that they
have some inherent limitations that a full-fledged
computer doesn't. Let's take a PDA and a flashy
compact sub-notebook into the booth and take
a test drive...
On space considerations, the PDA wins hands
down. Even if it has a full-size keyboard attached,
it takes up less than half the footprint of
the typical computer (even a sub-notebook).
No need to look for a spare power outlet, either;
a monochrome PDA can be used continuously for
over 8 hours without running out of battery
power, and the newer models mostly feature rechargeable
lithium-ion batteries. The PDA also beats the
computer on boot-up time; it springs to life
instantly when the power button is pushed, and
it returns to the same point you were at in
the app you were last using, which can be a
real time-saver. Last but not least, when you
are not using it, the PDA will shut itself off
automatically to save its battery (again, not
losing your data or your place).
In low-light situations, however, a PDA may
need some adjusting. Your manual will explain
how to adjust its backlight (try to buy a model
with this capability just in case) to optimize
the display for your working conditions. And
be sure to turn off any alarms you might have
set don't want those going off during
Okay, you're sailing along nicely, coffee break
is past, and you suddenly feel the need to consult
a glossary. If you're a computer user, you can
pull up your glossary on a spreadsheet, word
processing, or database program, and you've
probably got a 30GB hard drive full of treasures
from the last ten years. You may also have a
good-quality bilingual CD-ROM dictionary available,
which is something the PDA can't compete with
(yet!). On the PDA, you'll have to pack a little
bit lighter, but it's possible to carry just
about everything you could want, especially
if you've bought a memory card or memory stick.
A typical PDA with 16MB of memory, for example,
could easily hold a "Word-substitute"
program that allows viewing and editing of Word
documents; an "Excel-substitute" that
lets you work with Excel docs; a PowerPoint
viewer; a bilingual dictionary (although quality
varies, and you're more likely to find useful
ones in the more commonly used languages); and
a database program which you can easily stuff
full of your own glossary entries. In fact,
you can convert those Excel spreadsheets full
of terms to feed them quickly and efficiently
into your PDA. And one advantage the PDA has
is that operation is very intuitive. The tap
of a button easily re-sorts your glossary on
any field you'd like, and filtering via pull-down
selection boxes allows you to limit what you're
looking at for ease of handling.
Of course, your PDA will also store the contact
details for people you meet who are eager to
use your services in the future, and will even
instantly "beam" your personal business
card to other PDA-enabled folks via its infrared
port at the tap of a single button (and absolutely
no technical know-how required).
On a plane or train, the PDA and the laptop
are neck and neck. Both can be loaded with Word,
Excel, .pdf, and PowerPoint docs for study and
preparation. Some high-end PDA models also function
as cell phones, and most PDAs can link up to
the Internet to allow e-mail and Internet browsing
(separate wireless or other access service is
are particularly useful for interpreters?
You'll probably make good use of the built-in
apps (Address Book, telephone list, ToDo list,
Calendar, Expense and Calculator) that come
with every PDA. Beyond that, you can also load
your family photos in .jpg format, add a world
clock and currency converter to keep track of
what time zone you're in and how much you are
making, and add a few games for those moments
you don't feel like working. You will probably
want to download Internet pages for later reading
using a free app like Avantgo, which gives you
access to hundreds of channels of
content, like the Economist and many major international
news services, and updates automatically whenever
you synch. There are also niche
apps for every conceivable use: recipes, drawing
programs, where'd-I-park-my-car apps, doggie
veterinary record trackers...but let's focus
for a moment on a few apps that are either written
for interpreters or that can be used to great
advantage by the PDA-equipped interpreter.
Office Suite: If you're serious about PDA-ing,
you'll probably buy one of these sooner or later.
I personally like WordSmith, which allows you
to load and edit Word documents, and update
the versions on your desktop computer with your
changes. For Excel, I like TinySheet which does
the same for Excel spreadsheets. One full suite
that handles Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files
and comes bundled with some PDAs is Documents
Terminology management: If you choose to use
a dedicated database for your glossaries (or
to convert from Excel or comma-delimited files),
one of the best-kept secrets is a little program
called SuperMemo. Selling for just US$16, this
program is intended primarily as a flashcard
program, but features almost infinitely expandable
databases that can be fully customized, categorized,
sorted, and searched. A powerful flashcard algorithm
makes this a great way to memorize terms, too.
You can quickly switch the order in which your
columns are displayed and search for any term
Dictionaries (bilingual or monolingual): There
are a variety of these on the market, but quality
varies. Be sure to check out the content before
you buy. Sites like www.handango.com or www.palmgear.com
will offer a variety of these; search for keywords
like "dictionary your-language" and
you'll be sure to find plenty.
Language-specific OS or localized version of
the Palm OS: The native Palm OS supports accented
characters well (covering Spanish, French, and
most other Western European languages), but
the Palm OS has been basically an English system
since its inception. Recently, localized versions
of the OS with built-in foreign language input
have appeared on the market. It's also easy
to buy third-party apps that will translate
the Palm OS menus into the desired language,
and afford you the capability of inputting text
in other languages. If you work in Russian,
Turkish, Chinese or another "technically
interesting" language, for example, it
will probably be easier to buy an add-on to
allow your PDA to speak your language. Most
of these add-ons retail for between US$15.99
- US$29.99, and are remarkably stable. Installing
one will allow you to use the language in question
in all your apps, although you may experience
some troubles trying to get a double-byte language
to coexist peacefully with accented European
characters. This doesn't cause any crashes,
though, just some random double-byte characters
on the screen. It is necessary to turn off your
Chinese system, for example, if you want to
read a nice clean page of Spanish with proper
accents; luckily, doing so requires only a few
taps of your stylus.
Need to print? You can buy a third-party program
to enable printing on your PDA. Again, www.palmgear.com
has a selection, or you can find reviews of
different apps on the Net. This kind of app
is only necessary if you want to print directly
from your PDA to a printer, though, because
you can "get around" this requirement
in most cases by synching your PDA (updating
the data on both your computer and the PDA)
and then opening the document or data you want
to print on your computer and printing normally.
Specialized interpreter apps: as an aspiring
interpreter and Palm OS developer, I've been
trying to develop a number of apps useful for
interpreters. To date, I've completed "CI
Notes" (for those moments you just don't
have a notebook, napkin, or scrap paper on hand
take consecutive notes right on your
PDA). I am working on "InterpreTrainer"
(an app to help interpreting students track
their practice, materials used, difficulties
encountered, strategies applied, free reading/listening
results, and so forth), and on an app for interpreters
who want to organize their records to prepare
for applying for AIIC membership by tracking
days worked, language combinations, possible
signatures and signatures obtained. Of course,
if you have a great idea for a Palm OS app that
would help you do your job, I'd be glad to try
to develop it with you.
was originally published on the AIIC website
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