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Treebeard's Stumper Answer
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.

Translate "We provide quality education" to French and back again with the Alta Vista Babel Fish language translator, and you get "We provide education independent of quality." Guess which Beatles song becomes "I exceed with little of the sustentation [help] of my friends" after a few translations! Did the Chevy Nova car fail in Mexico because no va means "doesn't go" in Spanish? That's an urban legend, but I've read that the decision to drop the atom bomb in WWII hung on the Japanese word "mokusatsu" that can mean either "make no comment" or "ignore". Exact words matter!


"Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth..."
       (Genesis 11:9)

"The Babel fish is small, yellow and leechlike, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. ... The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language."
       (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)

The real AltaVista Babel Fish doesn't work quite that well. It's surprisingly good and it's free, but I hope the people in power use human translators with a sense of the complexity of language when it really matters in diplomacy and business. If a new car was named the Nomad, would you think that it wasn't angry? Have you ever been confused about whether to bury your money along the river or take it to your local financial institution? Probably not, but mistakes like these are possible when translating between languages. There could be consequences for choosing the wrong word.

I found a few examples of multi-language translations that come out nearly opposite in meaning:

(DMS home page)
    "We provide quality education."
     {English > French > English}
 "We provide education independent of quality."

    "I get by with a little help from my friends."
     {English > French > English > German > English > Italian > English > Portuguese > English}
 "I exceed with little of the sustentation of my friends."

(Star Wars)
    "It is not wise to upset a wookie."
     {English > French > English > German > English > Italian > English > Portuguese > English}
 "Not intelligent, one wookie must be disturbed."

Word order is a translation problem, and the trip through Portuguese seems to break many translations. I wonder why Bable Fish came up with that archaic English word "sustentation" instead of help?

It's not hard to come up with funny translations or gibberish, but sometimes multiple translations are almost poetry:

   "Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea, and frollicked in the autumn mist in the land called Honah Lee."
      {English > French > English > German > English > Italian > English > Portuguese > English > Spanish > English}
 "The magical lizards the red red deers of the flight had lived next to the sea and frollicked in the fog of the autumn in the Earth totally, the lees of this Honah are called."
   {English > Japanese > English > Chinese > English > Korean > French > English > German > English > Italian > English > Portuguese > English > Spanish > English}
 "To live next to the ocean is extensive, magical, that the service of the protection of Honah moves the fog of the autumn, of that this that walked of the Earth decided to the internal part frollicked."

It might seem "diplomatic" to leave your message vague, but history proves that it's dangerous. Say what you mean and get it right. Exact words matter!

It would be nice to have lots more examples of translatons that are funny or changed history. But I'm out of time this weekend! I consider this an open stumper. Please send your best!

Here are some starting Web links for your own research on this stumper.

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Copyright © 2003 by Marc Kummel /