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10/10/06

Machine translation delights

Golden Age of Gobbledygook

. . . It was another science fiction writer, Douglas Adams, who gave the Babel fish its name, long before AltaVista brought us the translation service. Finding somewhat fishy the way aliens and extraterrestrials in sci-fi always seem to speak in perfect (usually British-accented) English, Adams introduced a strange character in his novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- a tiny linguistic deus ex machina in the form of a miraculous fish:

"The Babel fish is small, yellow and leechlike, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe," Adams wrote. "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."

That's the idea, anyway. In practice, the translation services inspired by the Babel fish sometimes give the impression of helping us misunderstand anything said in any one of a dozen languages. Elevators haven't quite been installed in the Tower of Babel yet. And some of us are rather grateful for that. It's a beautiful tower, even if it does look like a cross between a construction site and a ruin.

For those of us who see every error as a potential poem or joke, every new web service or handheld gizmo claiming to do translation strikes a chill in the heart . . .

Read more at Wired News...

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