Students having difficulty with their French homework can breathe a small sigh of relief.

Search engine AltaVista today launched an updated version of its Babel Fish translation service.

Called Babel Fish 2000, the update includes a new feature for translating entire Web pages, and a virtual keyboard for typing in foreign character sets.

The updated service also adds support for three additional pairs of languages and has a modified user interface designed to be easier to use, AltaVista officials said.

Translation services are growing in importance as use of the Web becomes more widespread around the world, and as the content available becomes increasingly multilingual.

Babel Fish allows a user to enter a block of text up to 800 words long, and with the click of a mouse translate that text between 13 pairs of languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Russian.

Users can also enter an Internet address, or URL (uniform resource locator), and Babel Fish will generate a translated version of that Web page.

The version launched today adds the ability to click through links on a translated Web page to be taken to translated versions of subsequent pages. The service won't translate words that appear as images, only text.

Like other computerised translation services, AltaVista officials acknowledge their service can't be as accurate as a translation done by a human being.

Babel Fish 2000 claims an accuracy rate of 80 percent for documents written in clear grammar, which is a slight improvement over the previous version, said Seth Socolow, producer of translation services at AltaVista.

The new service also includes a virtual keyboard that pops up on the screen and lets users who don't know how to internationalise their PC keyboard type foreign characters.

The keyboard includes characters in the Cyrillic script, used in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, and in European alphabets.

Babel Fish currently doesn't support any Asian languages. AltaVista said it plans to do so in the future, but Socolow wouldn't say when.

Babel Fish is most popular among consumers, although businesses also use the software, to translate emails from overseas customers, for example, Socolow said.

Translating documents such as legal contracts, where accuracy is critical, would be "too risky," he conceded.

"There are also a fair amount of students who use this to 'assist' in their foreign-language homework," Socolow said. "I use the word 'assist' generously," he added.

The new translation pairs added today are German-French, French-German and Russian-English and join the ten existing pairs of English to French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish respectively, and vice versa.