Babel Fish

by Andrew Odewahn
03/01/2000

I have two confessions. First, I'm obsessed with the hope of having my book, Oracle Web Applications: PL/SQL Developer's Introduction, translated into Japanese. Second, I can't actually read a word of Japanese, or for that matter, any other language at all. My only attempt to use my one year of high school French was a dismal failure when I confidently wished a departing French-speaking couple "Oiseau" (Bird) instead of "Au Revoir" (Goodbye). Their laughter convinced me to stick with English.

Still, perhaps second only to having a Boll Weevil as my O'Reilly animal (I'm one of only seven people to make the pilgrimage to the bug's monument in Enterprise, Alabama), the thought of having a book in which the only words I can read are my own name gives me an almost obscene sense of satisfaction.

For these reasons, I was particularly intrigued to learn that babelfish.com 1 promises to "Translate Anything" written in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese. Even though Japanese isn't an option, I could certainly settle for German, but I first wanted some proof that the system actually worked.

To make up for the fact that I couldn't verify a translation myself, I devised the following experiment: take an English phrase, use Babel Fish to translate it into another language, and then translate the result back into English. I would be satisfied if the phrase I got out was reasonably close to the one I put in.

I began with a challenge: Ecclesiastes 9:11, one of the most poetic and beautiful verses in the Bible:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
I translated the phrase into French, and then waited breathlessly for Monsieur Babel Fish to translate it back into English. Here was his response:

I did not return, and saws under the sun, that the mass storage subsystem is with the rapid, neither the battle at the height, neither however with the bread with wise, neither however with the rich person with the men of comprehension, nor however of the favour to the men of competence; but happeneth their whole of time and chance.
"Hmmm," I thought, "maybe Babel Fish is an atheist." I then tried "The Raven":
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. "'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door- Only this, and nothing more."
Herr Babel Fish replied:
Once after one dreary midnight, while I pond-talk, weakly and weary, over many a wunderlicher and curious data carriering forgotten truck, during I nodded and almost napping, suddenly came there knocking, starting from somewhat easily a RWS and RWS at my space door." '," I,", murmured Tis any visitor at my space door Only this and nothing more "
"Well," I pond-talked, "maybe it's not very literary, either." So I gave it:
Jack and Jill went up the hill,
To fetch a pail of water;
Jack fell down, and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.
to which the Italian translator replied:

Jack and Jill have gone on the hill,
to capture a bucket from water memory;
Jack has fallen and has broken its advanced part and Jill has come falling after.
At last convinced that Babel Fish was no poet, I tested the French translator on some famous sentences. Nathan Hale's "I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country" became an ominous "I consider it regrettable that I have but one life to destroy for my country;" Roosevelt's "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" became an insightful "We do not have anything to fear but fear ourselves;" and Stein's "A rose is a rose is a rose" became a comical "A pink is a pink is rose."

Less lofty sentences were just as bad: "He ran to the store to fetch a loaf of bread" became (in Italian) "Round loaf has worked to the warehouse in order to capture one from bread memory, and "The mouse ran up the clock" became (in Spanish) "The mouse executed itself upon the clock." The only sentence I tried that translated perfectly was the French version of "I want my MTV." While Babel Fish had finally passed my test, I was unsatisfied with its overall performance.

The more I thought about it, though, the more disturbed I became. Many companies are planning a brave new world of automated systems; natural language interface systems like Babel Fish and AskJeeves are the forefront of that revolution. The problem is that the myriad of institutions pushing these systems--several banks, for instance, already impose a fee to talk to a human teller--will find it much easier to ask us to change our speech habits than to build systems capable of dealing with our idiosyncrasies (my southern accent has already foiled many a voice recognition system). As any PalmPilot user who has slipped into Graffiti script when writing a note (on paper, of course) can attest, our tools shape our habits. The danger is that systems like Babel Fish monkey with our most fundamental tool--language itself.

In 1984, George Orwell outlined how a tyrannical state used a pidgin language called Newspeak to impose thought-control:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism, the state philosophy of 1984], but to make all other modes of though impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak [standard English] forgotten, a heretical thought--that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc--should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.
The principles of Newspeak are eerily similar to the mode of speech needed to communicate with automated systems. First, the most "distinguishing mark of Newspeak grammar was its regularity." Second, Newspeak's "vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings...." Finally, Newspeak attached great importance to the pronunciation and cadence of the spoken word in order to create "short, clipped words of unmistakable meaning which could be uttered rapidly and which roused the minimum number of echoes in the speaker's mind."

A cynic might argue that this is a perfect match for companies looking to implement wide-scale natural language systems. In addition to forcing customers to provide good inputs - simple declarative sentences, approved keywords, and standard pronunciations - it simultaneously works to implant the "world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of [insert product here] ... and make all other modes of thought impossible."

While I'm not yet such a cynic, I do think the Newspeak approach represents an expedient, economical solution to a very difficult problem. We must keep a vigilant watch for technologies and organizations that demand that we become more like our machines, rather than the other way around.


1 In Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the G alaxy series, the Babel Fish is an ear-canal-sized fish that performs the same function as the Universal Translator on Star Trek.