There are a number of software packages which will automatically translate (e.g. between English and French). A basic package is inexpensive and can be installed on your PC. Alternatively, there are a number of online free translation services (see bottom of this page). Both can translate from English to French and from French to English (as well as other languages). The advantage of the online services is that they are free, while the advantage of a software package for your computer means that you don't need to go onto the internet for translation.
This page discusses how to get the most out of these free translators, with consideration of common problems associated with them. For more information on the French language and translation, please go to the home page, which is at French Language.
I also find that the latest version of MicroSoft Word also has some good facilities in this regard. If you turn on SpellCheck (under 'Review' in the more recent editions), it will check not only the spelling of words but also grammer, ensuring that articles and nouns match (e.g. highlighting if one is singular and the other plural) and so on. I find this a very useful compliement to the translation software available online or as PC packages and sometimes significantly improves on the quality of translations which they produce.
Translating Words versus Translating Sentences
The translation software is more than a computerised dictionary. Instead of merely translating individual words, a reasonable package looks at the entire phrase or sentence to determine the meaning, and then translates appropriately. This is important, as a given word can have multiple meanings, so a proper translation cannot be done literally, but must consider context.
This facility is available in most packages you can purchase, as well as the on-line varieties (e.g. free English to French sentence translations, and free French to English sentence translations). Note that the free translations on-line are typically provided by professional translation firms; when you access their site for the free translation you will generally see advertisements for human translations (for a fee, which is how they make their money).
Qualilty of Translation
The translation software works reasonably well. If you receive a letter in French, you can type it into the computer and generally get a reasonably accurate translation. Likewise, you can write a letter in English and have a reasonably accurate translation into French. Better yet, if you get a letter by EMAIL, you can simply cut and paste it into the translation application.
Unfortunately, no translation software is perfect and if you can read a little French you will soon notice the limitations of this method. To begin with, in both English and French a single word can have multiple meanings and the software is generally very poor at determining which meaning you have in mind. For example, the French word douce can mean 'slow 'or it can mean 'sweet'. Consequently, the French equivalent of "I walked slowly" can be mistranslated to "I walked sweetly". A second problem is that French frequently uses expressions rather than a single word and expressions do not translate well. For example, the English word 'postbox' translates well into the French 'bôite aux lettres' but 'bôite aux lettres' tends to be translated back literally into 'box of letters' rather than 'postbox'.
However, despite these limitations, the software is free and generally very useful. Even if you know a moderate amount of French, they can provide a quick initial translation which you can review to see if the translation was well done. If you don't speak any French at all, the easiest way to check the translation is to translate it back again and see if you get the same result. In other words, if you write a letter in English and have it translated into French, cut and paste the French version back into the software and have it translated back into English. If the translation back into English looks similar to the original letter, you can assume that the French version is likely fairly accurate. If the translation back into English looks very different, you cannot be very sure of the initial translation into French.
Ideally, any translation should take into account not only the accuracy of the translation but also cultural differences. A letter which is completely suitable in English, if translated literally, could be overly familiar or even rude within the context of the French culture.
For informal everyday communications, most French people will take into account that you are not fluent in either the French language or in the French culture. This is much less true for formal business communications, where expectations are much higher. In such cases, serious consideration should be given to having any translation reviewed by a native French speaker to ensure that it is not only accurate but also culturally sensitive.
Software and Free Online Translation
Software packages for translation are readily available at most stores that sell computer software.
If you would like to try on-line free translation websites, they can easily be found by typing in "free translation" into your search engine.