Understand no matter what immediately aforesaid to you in any form of language

Monday, March 2nd, 2009 @ %I:%M %p | Life

This afternoon I met up with Euan Morton at Boulder Coffee Company. At some point we got talking about languages and translations which reminded me of something I looked into many years ago when working for Apple: automatic translation. Back home I decided to redo the exercise and see if the technology is better now. Starting with an English text I run it through a few of the web-based translation engines, translate the text to Dutch and then that back to English. Does the outcome compare to the original?

The English text I am using is an excerpt from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where Arthur is introduced to the Babel fish:

‘The Babel fish,’ said The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy quietly, ‘is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. 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.’

Yahoo Babel Fish (English to Dutch):
‘ Babelfish, ‘ zei de Lifter ‘ s leidt stil aan de Melkweg, ‘ is klein, geel en bloedzuiger-als, en waarschijnlijk het meest oneven ding in het Heelal. Het voedt op brainwaveenergie die niet van zijn eigen drager maar van die rond het wordt ontvangen. Het absorbeert alle onbewuste geestelijke frequenties van deze brainwaveenergie om te voeden met. Het scheidt dan in de mening van zijn drager af een telepathische matrijs die door de bewuste gedachte frequenties met zenuwsignalen wordt gevormd te combineren die van de toespraak worden opgenomen van de hersenen centreert die hen hebben geleverd. Het praktische resultaat van dit alles is dat als u een Babelfish in uw oor plakt u om het even wat kunt onmiddellijk begrijpen bovengenoemd aan u in om het even welke vorm van taal. ‘

Yahoo Babel Fish (back to English):
‘ ‘ Babelfish, ‘ the hitchhiker ‘ said; s leads quietly to the galaxy, ‘ small, yellow and bloedzuiger-als are probably, and the most odd thing in the universe. It feeds on brainwaveenergie which are not received from its own bearer but of that around. It absorbs to all unconscious mental frequencies of these brainwaveenergie feed with. It separates then in the opinion from its bearer a telepathic matrix which is formed by the aware idea frequencies with nerve indicators to combine which are taken of the speech of the brain centre which has provided them. The practical result of all this is that if you stick Babelfish in your ear you can understand no matter what immediately aforesaid to you in any form of language. ‘

“What!?” I would guess the reaction of an English reader to be when confronted with the resulting English text without context. The reaction of the Dutch reader will be the same I assure you. The English to Dutch translation goes awry right at the beginning. “Oddest” is translated to “most uneven.”; “into the mind of its carrier” becomes “in the opinion of his carrier.” The Dutch sentence constructs are woolly and awkward.

Next I tried Google Translation:
‘De Babel Fish,’ zei de wandelaar Hitch’s Guide to the Galaxy rustig, “is
kleine, gele en bloedzuiger-achtig, en waarschijnlijk de oddest ding in het heelal.
Het voedt zich met brainwave energie ontvangen niet uit haar eigen luchtvaartmaatschappij, maar van die
eromheen. Het absorbeert alle onbewuste geestelijke frequenties van deze brainwave
energie te voeden zich met. Vervolgens excretes in de geest van de vervoerder
een telepathische matrix gevormd door het combineren van de bewuste gedachte frequenties
met zenuwen signalen opgepikt uit de toespraak centra van de hersenen die
geleverd zijn. Het praktische resultaat van dit alles is dat als je een stok Babel
vissen in uw oor kunt u meteen begrijpen wat zei u in ieder
vorm van taal. “

Google Translation (back to English):
”The Babel Fish, “said the Hitch hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy quietly,” is
small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe.
It feeds on brain wave energy received not from its own carrier but from those
around. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies of the brain wave
energy to feed on. Then excretes into the mind of the carrier
a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies
with nerve signals picked up from the speech centers of the brains that
delivered. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel
fish in your ear, you can immediately understand what you said in any
form of language. ”

Now, this is a bit bizarre. The Dutch translation while different is equally complex and awkward as Yahoo’s but somehow the translation back to English is almost the same as the original. With one difference though: the working of the Babel fish has changed. It is now explained to help you understand what you said in any language rather than what others said to you. The Dutch translation is amusing: “carrier” is translated as “airline company” and so it says that the Babel fish feeds itself with brainwave energy received not from its own airline company but from those around it…

Then lastly WorldLingo:
De “vissen van Babel,” zeiden de Gids van de Lifter stil aan de Melkweg, ‘is klein, geel en leech-als, en waarschijnlijk het meest oneven ding in het Heelal. Het voedt op brainwaveenergie die niet van zijn eigen drager maar van die rond het wordt ontvangen. Het absorbeert alle onbewuste geestelijke frequenties van deze brainwaveenergie om te voeden met. Het scheidt dan in de mening van zijn drager af een telepathic matrijs die door de bewuste gedachte frequenties met zenuwsignalen wordt gevormd te combineren die van de toespraak worden opgenomen van de hersenen centreert die hen hebben geleverd. Het praktische resultaat van dit alles is dat als u een vis van Babel in uw oor plakt u om het even wat kunt onmiddellijk begrijpen bovengenoemd aan u in om het even welke vorm van taal.’

And back to English:
The fish of Babel, said the guide of the hitchhiker quietly to the galaxy, `are small, yellow and leech-als, and probably the most odd thing in the universe. It feeds on brainwaveenergie which are not received from its own drager but of that around. It absorbs to all unconscious mental frequencies of these brainwaveenergie feed with. It separates then in the opinion from its drager telepathic matrix which is formed by the aware idea frequencies with nerve indicators to combine which are taken of the speech of the brain centre which has provided them. The practical result of all this is that if you stick a fish of Babel in your ear you can understand no matter what immediately aforesaid to you in any form of language.

WorldLingo makes similar mistakes as Yahoo (is one derived from the other?).

In all three cases the Dutch translation is just not Dutch: ignoring some of the word for word translation errors (luchtvaartmaatschappij? mening?) the sentences are badly constructed making it very hard to read and understand. I hoped that maybe I could use one of these engines as a tool to quickly post Dutch versions of my blog entries for some of my elderly family members for whom English is a hurdle. Use the engine for the bulk translation and then clean up by hand. But the translation is so far off that one just ends up translating from scratch from the original text.

 

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    5 Responses to “Understand no matter what immediately aforesaid to you in any form of language”

    1. Tom Chavez Says:

      How much of this bi-directional translation is gated by the structures and dictionaries of the to/from languages? Maybe the translation of a Dutch text into English would fare better, I ponder thinking that maybe English can better handle the complexities of a translation from another language… Is there a best common-form language?

    2. onno Says:

      Hmm, not sure why there would be a difference. Certain things are easier to express in English just as much as other concepts are easier in other languages. I don’t think there is a best common-form language, at least not a natural one, maybe an artificial language like Esperanto? All natural languages have cultural baggage.

    3. Marja Veldthuis-Kluijt Says:

      Heeft het er ook niet mee te maken dat dit stukje tekst uit een SF-boek komt?
      Als je nu eens een ‘gewoon’ stuk tekst gebruikt? (Bijvoorbeeld uit de krant?)

    4. onno Says:

      Die tekst is waar Yahoo de naam Babel Fish voor hun vertaalservice vandaan heeft. Dus leek het me leuk om te kijken hoe goed het met die tekst om kon gaan.

    5. Brandon Says:

      I tried this myself, but I used the passage from the TV show, since I have it memorized. In the show, the Guide instead says, “if you stick one in your ear,” which, when translated to German and back, becomes, “if you’re in your ear,” which is an odd place to be.

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