Palo Alto, Calif.-based Sentius Corp. has developed a technology intended to shatter language and literacy barriers. Called RichLink, the software automatically annotates documents on web sites, intranets, and CD-ROMs, allowing readers to understand the meaning, background, and intent of each word, regardless of language or social background.

With RichLink, the company claims, each word or picture in a document can be automatically linked to supplemental information or multimedia content contained within an external database or group of databases residing on a server. RichLink embeds this information directly into the document with a minimal increase in the document’s size.

When a reader wants more information about a particular word or phrase–such as a definition, translation, or example–he or she clicks on the word and a pop-up display presents the information. Pop-up displays can draw information from one or more standard databases or can be customized with an easy-to-use editing tool, Sentius says.

“The objective is instant, on-the-fly understanding,” said Marc Bookman, Sentius founder and chief executive officer. “RichLink enriches the reader’s learning experience in the most convenient way possible, maximizing comprehension while reducing reading time–all without altering the face of the document, incorrectly defining content, or forcing the reader to travel to another site.”

The technology’s creators believe it can have a tremendous impact in educational settings–particularly in today’s climate, where most non-English-speaking students are mainstreamed quickly into English-speaking classrooms.

“We think we have a unique solution that addresses the issue of diversity in the classroom,” said Steven Epstein, vice president for market development. “If you translate a document for someone, you’re almost doing them a disservice. By annotating the English, we’re giving them the support they need in the context of a learning exercise. Our goal is to get people reading in other languages more quickly.”

How RichLink works

According to Sentius, the technology behind RichLink takes the idea of hyperlinking to another level to encompass definitions, translations, picture files, sound files, and other utilities located in a separate database.

To annotate a document, you set up a profile for it. An autolink command lets you annotate each word automatically, using the database you specify. For example, you can use the autolink command to annotate each word of an English-language document in Spanish using an English-to-Spanish translation database.

Using the software’s authoring tool, you can also customize your annotations. According to Sentius, all it takes to use the authoring tool is a knowledge of basic word processing.

Customizing a document profile lets you account for idioms, figures of speech, and hard-to-translate phrases that trip up other translation software, the company said. For example, you can select and annotate the phrase “raining cats and dogs” so when a reader clicks on any word, a pop-up screen will tell the reader what the whole phrase means.

The software’s creators envision other custom applications as well, such as word-by-word sound clips that demonstrate proper pronunciation or picture files that give the visual representation of a word. Such tools could open the door to literacy for students with learning disabilities as well as for non-English-language students, Bookman said.

Recent applications

RichLink is being used by Japan’s largest news service to annotate its English language news feeds from sources such as the New York Times and San Jose Mercury News with pop-up translations into Japanese. And English professor Diane Middlebrook is using RichLink in an innovative way to teach a course on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” at Stanford University this term.

“Each student is assigned a few lines of the poem to research and annotate,” Middlebrook said. “Students will use the authoring tool to add their commentary to the text. At the end of the semester, we’ll have a full body of work that others can use to analyze the poem.”

The basic authoring tool and the plug-in required to read a document annotated with RichLink are available for free download from Sentius’ web site. The company sells its automated databases, which include the American Heritage Dictionary of English as well as Spanish and Japanese translation databases. French and German databases will be available soon, the company said.

Sentius Corp.

Stanford University