Dr. Haritaoglu has come up with a wireless solution to these translation blues: a cellphone or palmtop containing a color digital camera that takes a snapshot of the mysterious text and sends it along to a server. Software on the server identifies and translates the text, sends the English words back, and superimposes them on the screen.

So Dr. Haritaoglu can point and click with his hand-held device at a sign in a grocery store window containing the Chinese characters for ginseng, shark fin and herbs, as he did recently in San Francisco's Chinatown, and, 10 or 15 seconds later, see the words in English on the screen.

The technology is not intended for lengthy translations; rather, it is designed for quick hits -- three or four lines of text.

Dr. Haritaoglu built a prototype by attaching an off-the-shelf digital camera to a hand-held organizer with a cellphone plugged into it. Cellphones with embedded cameras are not yet sold in the United States, although they are available abroad, and Nokia will be offering a model here shortly, he said.

The device is an example of augmented reality -- presenting the real world of a Chinese shop sign, for instance, with virtual information like a translation of the sign added as an overlay. Augmented reality can offer information other than translations. For instance, with the addition of a Global Positioning System device, Dr. Haritaoglu can point his camera at a building and overlay not only text translations but also a street map of the area where he is standing.