March 21, 2013

The Translation Which Does Not Endeavor! (aka Effortless Translation)

A Review of Altavista's Babel Fish Translation Service (formerly at
an oldie-but-goodie originally published in The Hyogo Times, Japan, 2003

The English-Japanese implementation of Babelfish produces some fairly odd yet mostly comprehensible sentences. Of course, the simpler the input, the better. Translations with colloquialisms or phrases with multiple meanings generally come out as Engrish or Nihonglish (or whatever you call the Japanese equivalent). Indeed, as suggested by, if you use Babel Fish to translate and then un-translate an English phrase, the result reads like just so many Japanese T-shirts. For example:

Don't get mad - get even! *becomes* The stomach does not have to be raised, - profit do!

Don't get your panties in a bunch. *becomes* Your panties of the bundle you do not have to obtain.

Give me a break! *becomes* Be broken in me and give the eye!

Of course, if you repeat the translation/un-translation process, it gets worse. Quickly. Interestingly enough, I tried this using a variety of the Asian languages - and found the speed with which English becomes Engrish (the 'Engrish factor') differs significantly according to the language. For example, a single iteration yields:

Original English: Hi, my name is John. I'm testing this babel fish translation program. Let's see how it does, shall we?

Japanese (it.1): Today, as for my name it is John. I have tested this Babel fish translator. Will we see that how?

Mandarin (it.1): Feeds, my name is John. I are testing this Babylon fish translation program. We look how it do do, right?

Korean (it.1): Goodbye, my name is cyon. I am examining a babel fish translation pro gram. Do at description below do we it to peel, as it sees?

In this company, Japanese doesn't seem so bad, does it? Given a choice of substitutions for "Hi," "Today" is significantly better than the cryptic "Feeds," or the rather puzzling greeting "Goodbye." In later iterations, Japanese yields:

Japanese (it.4): Today, as for that because of my name John difference. I tested the translator of this fish of Babel. Us of the glance how?

Japanese (it.8): Because of today regarding me of that and John the difference attaching of ranking of thing. I tested the translator of this fish of Babel. Us of glance how?

Mandarin ultimately proves to have a lower Engrish factor, as very little changes beyond the 1st iteration. There are no further appearances of bizarre words after "feeds." In contrast, using Korean:

 Korean (it.4): Goodbye, my name is the cyon. I about low in babel fish translation am examining the gram which is occupied. It cranial phase nac the last parts, it depicts us to it inside hour peeling?

Korean (it.8): Goodbye, my name is the cyon. The I confronts and it does in lowly translation and the inside which is it inside funeral formation the low of examining the babel fish occupies that RAM in being urgent. Inside inside end it to it it depicts us to the nac side it the hour peeling skull disjoints which is attained?

And things continue in this fashion.

The 13th iteration using Korean yields a monstrous text of 102 words (the original had 19), containing such gems as "it seizes the nac funeral," "water dog company," "service formation prosecuting attorney," the word "service" three times in a row, the enigmatic "that of lowly pwuth," and the abomination, "our attainment toy hour peeling skull."

This is what happens when you use nothing but direct translation. Clearly, Babel Fish can be a useful tool if you are in a terrible rush or know nothing about the target language - but without human moderation, the results will always sound at least slightly strange. This in itself can be educational, especially for the advanced student: where and why direct translation fails can illustrate nuances of meaning as well as common errors.

That being said, my advice is this: unless you really need it, avoid that of lowly pwuth.

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