Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Beware the Babelfish

I was waiting at home for my sister and nephew who were coming to visit. The phone rang. I answered it, and a snooty female voice with jerky electronic intonation said ‘we-are-twenty-five-miles-from-Stamford-/-you-sweaty-shit-stabber’. Thus I realized belatedly that you can send an SMS to a landline, and that just as people think it a giggle to teach parrots and foreigners to cuss, so they may now delight friends and family by having school-mistressy robots relay toilet-mouthed messages. This is certainly more entertaining than running Greek names through an English spell-checker as we used to do in breaks, especially now that spell-checkers are less gullible than they used to be – you get ‘no suggestions’ now, instead of brave attempts, which is no fun at all. Nowadays I have a French dictionary on CD ROM, and if you type a French word or phrase into the display, a female voice will pronounce it for you. If you devote some thought to the spelling, you can get the lady to say all kinds of lascivious stuff in heavily accented English. (I must stress that I only do this occasionally, for ten minutes or so, OK?)

Babelfish can be quite comical too, unless you really want to know what something means, in which case the programme’s obliviousness of context, connotation and collocation often renders it pretty much useless. A message I Babel-fished from a Dutch website revealed that the writer liked ‘carved boys’, which sounds horrific, but of course meant ‘circumcised boys’. Not hard to deduce, that one, but here’s something I got from Babel-fishing a chunk of Chinese text:

‘Lives at home puts on make-up the entire audience shopping to add 1 Yuan to be possible resulting in to pick the beautiful wheat flour to paste the membrane or picks the pure fresh aloe to exempt washes the face pastes the membrane. adds 4 Yuan to be possible to obtain a following section commodity clothing clean (color stochastic) a sail woman with 15 piece of wet turbans (design stochastic) the happy companion.’

Got that? I have decided that ‘wet turbans’ are probably ‘shower caps’, and that pasting your membrane is in all likelihood applying some sort of cream to your face so that you don’t have to use soap – ‘to exempt washes the face’. The stochastic colour and design bit probably means that you get a choice in the colour and design of your wet turban. If you are thinking ‘who gives a toss?’ I sympathise, but you probably don’t teach Chinese students, who often write like this without the intervention of Babelfish. I have to spend quite a lot of time deciphering this sort of thing.

You no doubt know that whole web-pages can be Babel-fished. (Clicking on the referring URL for a visitor to this blog the other day, I found my posts rendered into clunky, hit-and-miss German.) I was once startled to see this headline on a page of Yahoo News:


Reuters Thursday July 26, 12.44 PM

There it was, in black and white, and other colours. I read on:

LONDON (Reuters) – Ever more Britons are naming their farts after celebrities and soap stars, the animal welfare charity PDSA said one Thursday, with Elvis, Beyonce and Posh ’n’ Becks among the favourites.

Drank for the second year running, the signal fart name for all breeds is Max, the veterinary charity found.

It took me a few minutes to work out that the Babelfish programme was set to translate French to English, and so it had scanned the text for French words and replaced ‘pets’ with ‘farts’, ‘on’ with ‘one’ and ‘but’ with ‘drank’. O happy accident!

People place such faith in Babelfish, though... The linguistically innocent imagine that computers really can understand. Here is an excerpt from an essay I was given yesterday. The writer is discussing the speed with which information can be accessed online, ‘…unlike the book, which walks on his stomach, creeping movement gait slower than a tortoise!’ Books are written, then ‘received by the printing press, for lying to a period of not only known to God and the established players in the science that he was even become obsolete information.’

The lovely lady who wrote this told me today that her approach to essays was exactly what I suspected it was: 1) write what she wanted to say in her first language, 2) whack it through Babelfish, 3) print it out and 4) hand it in, no messing. That the results are often quite inscrutable did not occur to her, such was her faith in computers.

If your education has focused only on your answers to questions rather than on the thought processes whereby you arrived at them, Babelfish must seem like the perfect way to get top marks. Just goes to show how wrong you can be. Your own home-grown errors are far more valuable to you as a learner. I can say 'is this what you mean?' and you can say, yes, or no, or partly. We can negotiate it, and I can tell you how I think the idea might best be expressed. If you could present me with a perfect essay after a term on a beginners' course you wouldn't need to (bloody) be here, (for Christ's sake) would you? Yeah?


Anonymous said...

poor creature, much maligned Babelfish. Commented on in Loving memory of the HHGTTG.


Fionnchú said...

Hi VS! I recognize you from comments pages at Bo's blogs, and thought I'd stop by after you saw my Introversion spiel. Right away, I read this and remembered, this being maybe ten years ago in ancient software terms, my wife getting excited by "Final Draft," an early screenwriting package that enabled what was typed to be recited in a variety of accents, and genders! The regression to schoolroom pranks ensued rapidly as my wife and her partner spent much of their "working time" engaged in scatological banter filtered through their medium.

vilges suola said...

Hi, Fionnchu, thanks for stopping by. Yeah, getting machines to talk dirty... we are among the first human beings to be able to do this. What a privilege!


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