30 January 2011

Review: Lidl's "United Office" 6-language pocket translator

So a few weeks ago, Lidl's weekly specials in my area were "office supplies".  As a somewhat obsessive language learner, an electronic dictionary for 7 quid was something not to be missed.

Of course, I knew it would be rubbish.
And of course, I was right.

The first thing I noticed when I opened it up was the quick reference guide under the lid.  This I recognised from a pocket dictionary that someone had in my high school.  And it's been a good 15 years since I moved on from that place, so I knew straight off that we were looking at first generation technology.  This technology appears to have been widely licensed as a "white label" system from a Far Eastern company, and I've seen a couple of devices with different physical layouts, but obviously the same underlying tech.

The dictionary
Well, the first function that any electronic dictionary needs to have is the dictionary itself, so we'll look at that first.
As might be expected from its 13-character, single-line screen, this "pocket translator" certainly isn't a translator, and even the term "dictionary" is stretching things a little.  It's more of a "glossary" than anything else.
The dictionary contains no explanations whatsoever, just a series of one-to-one mappings of equivalent words across languages.  It's as though it were a single big table of 6 languages by however many words.

But some words don't map cleanly down to one translation, so while there's one "affirm" in English, there's three entries for "affirmer" in French: "affirmer (1)", "affirmer (2)", "affirmer (3)".  Affirmer (2) gives us the English "assert", and "affirmer (3) gives us the English "aver", a word that even I would have trouble understanding and I'm pretty good at English, what with speaking it my entire life...!

Well that "aver" is in there for a reason, suggesting that the equivalent German, Spanish, Italian or Dutch must be of some use

And therein lies the problem.  If there is a meaningful distinction in one language, that distinction becomes part of the table, and the dictionary compilers had to find something to fill the row for every language.  In a dictionary where you know the native language of the reader, it is accepted to give out the odd rare word or two in the reader's language as it won't be misleading.  But when you don't know, the end result may be that the reader learns to speak in a way that is not well understood by natives of his target language.

The phrasebook
The phrasebook functionality follows the same table-based style.  It has the usual stuff -- good morning, how are you, where is ...?
However, there's no way to search it other than to start at the start and run down the list.
So the content's OK, but the delivery stinks.

I like Hangman, but if you're not going to give me any clues, I'm left in the dark.  A 5-letter French word?  There's quite a few of those...
The Anagrams are a bit better, but the whole things too random for me to bother attempting to use.

The calculator
The numbers are all over the "QWERTY" line of text, with the operators on the line below. It wouldn't have been difficult to mimic the layout of a standard calculator by splitting the numbers across rows.  That would have made the calculator much more easy to use for anyone with a calculator already.

The verdict
It's rubbish.  But then again, I knew that and I bought it anyway, because it's cheap rubbish. It's smaller and lighter than a single Langenscheidt "Universal" dictionary (the truly pocket-sized dictionaries from Langenscheidt), so at £7 I can hardly complain.  I'll probably take it round Europe several times, and I'll probably never use it.  In that sense, it's a bit like the warning triangle in the back of the car -- it's a just-in-case thing.  For that, it'll do.

Update, 29/07/2011
Still haven't used it.  I wonder if I'll actually need it before the battery goes flat. (CR2032, non-rechargeable.)

Update, 07/01/2012
I hadn't used it and I was moving out of a flat.  I figured I'd never ever use it, so I binned it.
By the time I need anything like that, I'll probably have got myself a smartphone or something anyway.


Anonymous said...

Hilarious! I stumbled across this after searching for 'electronic translator Lidl'. We bought one of these in 2009 for my now 9 year old son, just before our move to France. Obviously, we knew it wouldn't help him learn French but we thought he might like it anyway. And he did, until he lost it about six months later. Two years later and a serious of random events reminds him of this item which, apparently, he really liked. (So how come it was always me finishing the endless games of clueless Hangman?) Needless to say, I'll be strongly encouraging him to spend his birthday money more wisely.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I bought this thing in Lidl France, but it came only with French instructions. Can anyone advise me where and how to get an English user instruction for this.
The Fenderman

Nìall Beag said...

Since I've got rid of mine, I can't really help. But all of the information is on the quick reference card inside the case -- you could try typing a few of the words and phrases from it in at Google translate.

Anonymous said...

To work it you need to press which LANGUAGE you are using, then type in the word, then ENTER then change the Language to what you want the translation to be in and up comes the word!