Tech reviewers have been gushing about a new iPhone app called "Word Lens" that magically takes foreign words seen by the phone's camera and translates them into English. (At present, it's limited to Spanish to English and vice-versa.) The demo video is pretty impressive: When the camera is pointed at a Spanish-language stop sign, the word "PARE" turns into "STOP" with the letters atop the original sign's red octagonal background. So, if you're standing in front of a carniceria in Guatemala City, you point your camera and voila! your image morphs into a shot of the place with a sign saying "Meat Market."
But, as experts in character recognition and computer translation have often said, the technology isn't perfect. And when I took "Word Lens" for a test drive on my iPod touch, I quickly discovered an unintentionally funny flaw.
I went to the website of La Opinión, the Spanish-language newspaper published in Los Angeles. There on the home page was a headline for a section titled "El Año en Fotos" (the year in photos.)
I pointed the camera at the screen, and the translation popped up almost instantly: "The anus in fotos." I started laughing so hard, I almost dropped the iPod.
Apparently Word Lens failed to distinguish between "año" (year) and "ano" (anus). In Spanish, that little tilde "~" makes a huge difference. (The "n" with the tilde on top, "ñ", is actually a separate letter in the Spanish alphabet.)
When I pointed out the problem to Otavio Good, the CEO and chief programmer at Quest Visual, the company behind Word Lens, he was duly chagrined.
"It's both terribly embarassing and sometimes hilarious," he wrote in an email. "After looking at it, it seems like there is a very solvable bug in the part of my code that deals with accents."
Good also said he expects that the bug will be fixed in the next update.
Meanwhile, the tech blog Gizmodo discovered the bug on its own when it used Word Lens to translate a Spanish headline that said "Sandra Bullock, Mujer del Año." (Sandra Bullock, woman of the year.)
Same result as mine, although given Ms. Bullock's recent marital woes, maybe the article was referring to her ex and the translation was inadvertently correct.