Treebeard's Homepage : Stumpers

Treebeard's Stumper
14 February 2003

Telephone Call To Babel

Misunderstandings can trigger both laughter and disaster. The AltaVista Babel Fish language translator is a fun lab for your own experiments here on the Web. Type anything and then translate it back and forth (and again...) between languages to see how the original message gets massaged. It's easy to make gibberish, but my stumper is to find computer translations that are funny or interesting or dangerous. I'm especially interested in "translations" that mean the exact opposite of the original. Have mistranslations ever sparked real battles and changed human history?

I thought of this stumper when I drove to school last week listening to Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 5 speech to the United Nations about Iraq. A lot seems to hang on a particular Arabic word transcribed from pirated phone conversations and translated as "evacuated" and then re-translated into dozens of other world languages. I wonder what the global audience really heard? It's a stumper no matter how you feel about the Iraq situation. Have mistranslations and misunderstandings ever caused real wars and changed human history?

You can start playing with my stumper right here. Type (or paste) any short text up to 150 words, select a language, and see what you get. The resulting translation may look funny if you don't have that foreign font installed, but you can still cut and paste it into the Translate Again box to translate it back and beyond. If that's too tedious, try Carl Tashian's Lost in Translation page that will "babelize" any text back and forth through many world languages with just one click. Have fun, but remember what you did so I can do it too!


The AltaVista Babel Fish Translation Service isn't the only free language translator on the Web, but I think it was the first, and it definately has the coolest name! (Sure, it's from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.) There are more online translation services to play with, including SysTran, InterTran, Google, FreeTranslation, and PROMT-Reverso. You can translate between English and Arabic at Ajeeb and Al Misbar. There is better commercial software, and sites like offer real human translation for a price.


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Copyright © 2003 by Marc Kummel /