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The humble phrasebook, reloaded

We’re re-inventing the phrasebook and building a new kind of language tool.

Phrasebooks are the most frustrating language tool ever invented: useful in theory but tricky to use in practice. In this article we explain how Czechslator is a new, better kind of phrasebook: as quick to use as a machine translator, but still as reliable as a good-old human-translated phrasebook.


I’m sure you’re familiar with phrasebooks: they are (or at least used to be) popular with tourists who don’t speak the local language. The idea is that you, as a tourist, will carry the phrasebook around with you and, whenever you find yourself in a situation where you need to communicate, you open the phrasebook to a topic that matches the situation – like buying a ticket or ordering food in a restaurant – and then miraculously you just start communicating.

I hope I’m not alone in finding that idea a little too naive. Has anyone ever actually used a phrasebook in this way? Probably not. When you need to say something in a language you don’t speak, you probably need to say it quickly. The last thing you want at that moment is to make some apologetic "please wait" gesture and then spend the next twenty seconds fumbling through some pesky book. Which topic do you go to to find your sentence? And what if the sentence isn’t in the book at all?

To me, phrasebooks are simultaneously the most promising and most frustrating language tool ever invented. In theory, they promise to give you sentences you can actually use in real life. In practice, a typical phrasebook contains just a few hundred sentences, so the likelihood that the one you need will not be there is quite high. And even if the sentence is there, chances are it’s too tricky to find. And even if you do find it, it may not be exactly the sentence you want. For example, assume you want to say He is thirty-two years old but your phrasebook only has I am twenty years old. How do you go from I am to he is and from twenty to thirty-two, all in a language you don’t speak?

No wonder people are turning away from phrasebooks and using machine translation instead. Machine translation isn’t as reliable as a human-translated phrasebook but it is infinitely more convenient: you just type what you want and it gives you an answer. And, unlike a phrasebook, machine translation always gives you an answer, it never says "I don’t have this".

OK, so what has this long litany of complaints been building up to? This: over here at Czechslator, we have decided to build a better phrasebook. Because Czechslator is, in essence, nothing more than a phrasebook: it is a database of human-translated sentences in English and Czech. But unlike a classical phrasebook, using Czechslator looks and feels like using machine translation: you just type what you need and, in all likelihood, it gives you a translation, because its database is much bigger than that of a typical phrasebook.

Much much bigger, in fact: Czechslator will contain tens of thousands of sentences eventually. But size isn’t Czechslator’s only power. Its other power is that the sentences are customizable. In Czechslator, a sentence like I am 20 years old lets you click on the I to select a different pronoun, and click on the 20 to select a different number. Then it gives you a translation into Czech – all safe in the knowledge that what you’re getting is correct because it has been checked by humans.

In Czechslator, we have combined the reliability of human-translated phrasebooks with the convenience of machine translation. We have produced something new: a next-generation phrasebook.

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CZECH PHRASES BY TOPIC

TOPIC OF THE WEEK Money | Peníze How to talk about money in Czech. Czech it out » Being polite | Zdvořilost These Czech phrases open doors. Czech it out » Hello and good-bye | Dobrý den a na shledanou Important Czech greetings to use when meeting people. Czech it out » Survival basics | Hlavně přežít Essential Czech phrases: the barest minimum every visitor to the Czech Republic needs to know. Czech it out » Agree or disagree | Souhlas a nesouhlas Czech phrases for expressing agreement and disagreement. Czech it out » On the Internet | Na Internetu Web, e-mail and social networking in Czech. Czech it out » Around the house | U nás doma Czech phrases for showing your house to friends. Czech it out » Here and there | Tady a tam Czech phrases for commenting on places. Czech it out » Trains | Vlaky Czech phrases for travelling by train. Czech it out » Knowing people | Známe se Czech phrases for getting to know people. Czech it out » In a hurry | Pospícháme Czech phrases for when you're in a rush. Czech it out » Emergencies | V nouzi How to call for help in Czech. Czech it out » I don't understand! | Já nerozumím! Czech phrases to get you out when you're stuck. Czech it out » Memory | Paměť Czech phrases about remembering and forgetting. Czech it out » Languages | Jazyky How to talk about language skills in Czech. Czech it out » Apologies | Omluvy How to say you're sorry in Czech like you mean it. Czech it out » Good morning | Dobré ráno Wake up and get going with these Czech phrases. Czech it out » Where are you from? | Odkud jste? Czech phrases for asking and saying where people are from. Czech it out » In the restaurant | V restauraci Czech phrases you need to make yourself understood in a restaurant. Czech it out » Girlfriends and boyfriends | Chodíme spolu You can take these Czech phrases on a date. Czech it out » Food preferences | Co jíme a nejíme Say in Czech which food you do and don't eat. Czech it out » Work and jobs | Práce a zaměstnání Say what you do for a living in Czech. Czech it out » Sleep | Spánek Czech phrases about sleeping and waking up. Czech it out » Planning the future | Plány do budoucnosti How to talk about plans and intentions in Czech. Czech it out » True or false? | Pravda, nebo nepravda? How to agree and disagree in Czech. Czech it out » Christmas | Vánoce Things to say in Czech around the Christmas tree. Czech it out » Dinner time! | Ke stolu! Czech phrases for talking about food and meals. Czech it out » Birthdays | Narozeniny Birthday wishes and other birthday phrases in Czech. Czech it out » Cheap or expensive? | Levné, nebo drahé? Czech phrases for talking about prices and money. Czech it out » Come in! | Dále! How to answer in Czech when someone knocks on your door. Czech it out » Marriage | Manželství Married, single or divorced, you need these Czech phrases. Czech it out » In the bar | V baru Going for a drink? Take these Czech phrases with you. Czech it out » Seeing a doctor | U doktora Czech phrases you might need when talking to a doctor. Czech it out »

CZECHSLATOR BLOG

The importance of being human-translated How to say something in a language you don’t speak. Read now » The humble phrasebook, reloaded We're re-inventing the phrasebook and building a new kind of language tool. Read now » Gender versus Czech In Czech we don’t say ‘I am happy, we say ‘I as a man am happy or ‘I as a woman am happy’. Read now »