Iowa site speaks many languages

In a move it hopes translates into a growth in business and population, Iowa has added a language-translation tool to its Web site.

With a single click, users can translate the site (www.state.ia.us) into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Korean, Japanese or Chinese.

The state began offering foreign-language translations three months ago. Iowa's chief information officer, Richard Varn, said the translation tools make the site more user-friendly. But economic development is another important reason for the service, he said.

Iowa, which has a population of 2.9 million, is the only state that has not seen its population increase by 50 percent during the past 100 years, Varn said. It went from 10th to 30th in state population rankings during that time, and that's "not very good for a growing workforce," he said.

"We want to be more welcoming of newer and younger Iowans," he said. "This seemed a way to help with that and project a way of doing business internationally." He said Iowa also has a growing Hispanic population.

Varn, who speaks Spanish fluently and Russian "badly," said the translations are "fairly accurate. But it's not a 100 percent accurate." Although feedback has been light, it has been positive, he said.

The state used a free translation service called Babel Fish from AltaVista Co., best known for its search engine. On the Iowa home page, when users click on a language link, the page is translated. The service continues to translate Web pages as users click further into the site.

Matt Costamagna, an AltaVista spokesman, said the company was unaware that Iowa was using the service and didn't know how many other states and municipal governments might be using it. He said the predominant users of Babel Fish are businesses, students and foreign travelers. A scan of the other 49 state government Web home pages did not show any links to language translation tools.

Babel Fish performs more than 1 million translations a day. The program can translate English into the eight languages that Iowa offers on its site and vice versa. It also can translate Russian to English.

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