Babelfish is a web thingy that tries to make the world less confusing by allowing you to easily translates words from one language to another. It has somewhat the opposite effect, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Just The Facts

  1. The BabelFish Translation Web Thingy is the most successful real-life implimentation of a device from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". But only because bars that attempt to serve a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster get shut down after the first few deaths.
  2. The fact that its translation functionality is less than perfect makes for a variety of entertaining side-uses.
  3. If its translation functionality were perfect, like its fictional counterpart, it would "cause more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."

Why a fish? Why not a duck?

The Babelfish website was created to deal with the obvious need of people speaking different languages to communicate with each other. Even though English is the lingua franca (not an English phrase) of the Internet, the differences between such dialects as Texan, Cockney, Ebonics, L33tSp33k and Legalese remind us that we will probably never all be speaking the same language.

In our modern reality, perfect translation is as much an unfulfilled Science Fiction concept as faster-than-light travel, immortality, robot sex without chafing and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. Most frequently, cheesy sci-fi, not wishing to devote time and/or words on interpreting alien languages, assumes the existence of a Universal Translation Device (either physical or Plot Device) that makes inter-everybody communication easy, except when the story requires otherwise. One of the first sci-fi franchises to acknowledge the existence of the Universal Translation Device was Star Trek, even devoting two inaction-filled episodes of the Next Generation series to failings of this perfect technology, one of which originated the Trekkie in-joke about "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra." (As if communicating with Trekkies were not difficult enough.) If Gene Roddenberry and his minions had come up with a better name for their device than "Universal Translator", it would be the name of the best known translation site.

But it was Douglas Adams' multi-media sci-fi-com franchise "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", dedicated to deconstructing Science Fiction tropes, that came up with the name: Babelfish.

The Way the Babelfish You Don't Use Works

It would be presumptutous to try to explain the Babelfish better than Adams' "Guide" did, but a severe stretch of "fair use" to quote its full explanation, so here it is in bits and pieces.

It feeds on brainwave energy not from its 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.

A mechanism that is perfectly logical and perfectly absurd in the proud tradition of non-Benny-Hill English Humor.

The Babel fish is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe.

Which goes without saying, but we said it anyway. This statement absolved Adams from coming up with anything odder in the entire "Hitchhiker" series, but he did anyway.

Adams also gives theological importance to his babelfish.

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindboggingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. "The argument goes something like this: 'I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, 'for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.' 'But,' says Man, 'The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.' 'Oh dear,' says God, 'I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly vanished in a puff of logic.

The real-life Babelfish does not have the same effect since it is NOT mindbogglingly useful and its creation can be tied to specific human software engineers, however much they may want to deny it.

The Way the Babelfish You Do Use Doesn't Work So Well

As the above diagram shows, the 'real-life' Babelfish at Babelfish.Yahoo.Com does not work in nearly as incredible a fashion or with as uncomfortable an interface as having living creatures inserted into their ears. Mostly because it would interfere with your iPod earbuds.

You enter either the url for a webpage or text of up to 150 words (a limit that was apparently set to prevent International Copyright problems and avoid the need to deal with foreign lawyers) and select the to/from languages. Currently, it allows translating from English to 12 other languages, from French to 6 other languages, and from those other languages back to English or French. The reasons for the limits in translation are not clear, but it's never considered a good idea to make it easier for the Germans to communicate with the Russians, and nobody cares about the Dutch.

You could translate some text from German to English, then from English to Russian, but the accuracy of translation degenerates with each re-translation, which makes BabelFish more entertaining than useful. (see below)

And there are other translation sites and services, but BabelFish was declared the "Category Killer" sometime last century, so they are essentially irrelevant.

A Brief History of the BabelFish Web Thingy

Sometime in the previous millennium, during the pre-historic days of the Internet, when the World Wide Web failed to include several continents in its definition of "World Wide", there were a bunch of Internet Search Engines that do not exist today, all competing to become the Next Google even before the First Google even existed. One of the most successful at that time was AltaVista.

In an effort to set itself apart from its competitors, it added to its services a Language Translator, and, because at least one of the nerds working at AltaVista was a cool nerd who had read "Hitchhiker's", they named it BabelFish, apparently with Mr. Adams' blessing, since there is no record of lawyers getting involved. It was a big hit, but not big enough to save AltaVista from the Dot Com Crash and the Rise of Google. AltaVista was acquired by Yahoo! in 2004, and by 2008, it was the last piece of AltaVista anybody cared about, so it was re-branded "Yahoo! Babelfish".

For the record, "Vista Alta" translated via BabelFish from Spanish to English is "high view" and from Italian is "high sight", but "Alta Vista" doesn't translate at all, apparently in quiet tribute to its founders.

Getting Lost in BabelFish Translation

Just as rerecoding a cassette tape (an ancient method of sound recording) to another cassette, then to another and another, or resaving JPG images over and over causes a degradation in quality, so too does repeated retranslations using BabelFish. While generally annoying, the imperfections in a single BabelFish translation are sometimes unintentionally funny, and in time, the cascading imperfections in multiple translations achieve LOL status.

The "round-trip translation" affect actually predates computer translation, with Mark Twain once publishing a version of his 1865 short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" that had been translated into French then re-translated back to English by imperfect people. Not a bad way to earn additional royalties without having to write something new.

There are many who believe that is how many of the scripts of motion picture remakes are created.

If the computer can automate the translation process, it can certainly automate the "round-trip translation", and there are websites that do exactly that, the most famous of which was named Lost in Translation years before the Bill Murray movie.

What follows are pieces of this very article, processed though the Lost in Translation 'Babelizer':

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Rejected, the end to hope to determine mindboggingly very an improbable agreement a position with little so very a benefit for the agreement, some philosophers has, the end to around considers only to this gradica the conclusion and the standard of the test of the God absence. " The fixed argument all the solved that of a certain thing of similar: ' It rejects the extremity, for the video that I exist, ' it has resources stops like God, ' for the test the lines of the deviation of the faith and without the faith are they nothing.' ' But, ' it has resources stops like the man, ' Babelfish is the current of the inoperative women, isn' T? The developed agreement of the apprehensions could not have been. It controls him with whom you exist and therefore, of has the arguments, don' T. QED.' ' Ah, ' it has resources stops like God, ' Hadn' T was those, ' Opinion; and one disappears immediately in a breathing of the logic.

I couldn't have said it better myself.