Monday, February 20, 2012

Babelfish and Bible Translation


If you’ve never played with the internet translation engine called babelfish, it is kind of fun and occasionally useful. You plug in a block of text in the source language, choose the language filter you desire, and it gives you a crude translation in your chosen target language. For an example, here’s Psalm 23:4 from the Common English Bible:

Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger
because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
they protect me.

And here is how babelfish translated that verse into French:

Même lorsque je marche par la vallée la plus foncée, je ne crains aucun danger parce que vous êtes avec moi. Votre tige et votre — de personnel ils me protègent.

I don’t happen to speak French. Nor do I think I’ll ever try. (I was traumatized by a Parisian waiter once). Still, I think I see a little problem in babelfish’s result. Let’s translate it back into English and see what happens:

Even when I walk by the most sunk valley, I do not fear any danger because you are with me. Your stem and your — of personnel they protect me.

Translation is as much an art as a science. If translation were a science, babelfish would work better. Maybe one day, with advances in Artificial Intelligence, a translation engine will give better results.

One difficulty in translation, whether done by a computer or a human being, is that words have a range of meaning. The English noun staff can mean a shepherd’s crook or it can mean personnel. In this case, babelfish chose the wrong meaning.

Consider the verb “to spike.” (Never mind the noun)! You can spike a fever. You can spike a volleyball. You can spike the punchbowl at Senior Prom. Arguably these three meanings are related, but they are far from the same thing. Now, imagine the difficulties of translating the wordplay in the following English sentence into another language--any other language.

After she drank the spiked punch, she began to spike a fever and could not spike the volleyball.

Let’s see how babelfish does. In French:

Après que elle a bu du punch enrichi, elle a commencé à une fièvre et ne pouvait pas spike le volley-ball

And back into English:

After she drank the enriched punch, she began a fever and could not spike volleyball.

Not bad. The meaning is mostly preserved, but the repeated use of “spike” is lost.

There are perhaps as many as 500 translations of the Bible into English. This is the first of a series of blogposts dealing with translation, and what distinguishes all those Bible versions one from another.

The Common English Bible is sponsoring a second Blog Tour beginning this Wednesday, February 22. As a participant, I’ll be able to give away a free paperback copy of the CEB each week for the duration of the tour. If you would like to win this week’s free copy, cut and paste your favorite Bible verse (any English version) into the babelfish engine. Translate it into the language of your choice and then back into English. Post the results in the comments to this thread, and the one that amuses me most gets the Bible. This contest ends at 11:59 p.m. Central Time, Saturday February 25. You'll need to check back next week to see if you've won. Decision of the judge (me) is final and completely arbitrary, but play along. It’ll be fun!

Babelfish takes its name from a creature described in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The illustration of the babel fish was taken from this website. A good description of the fish, and how it proves, or disproves the existence of God can be found here.



  1. I was really bummed when I read Douglas Adams had become a follower of Richard Dawkins. I loved "The Hitchhiker's Guide"! Especially lines (something!) like, "It hung in the air very much unlike a brick." And the similar, "It tasted almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea."

    Anyway! Thank you for highlighting just how difficult the job of translating the Bible is!

    It got me to thinking about this whole language thing. What is language anyway? It is trying to convey a reality you have experienced with someone who hasn't experienced it. If I see a beautiful sunrise, I might try to put it into words so that I can share the experience with you. Now, if we both happen to be there, then words aren't necessary. But then, if I want to tell you how I feel about it - then I need words again!

    But, it seems to mean, it is language that brings us together. It is the glue, the means of relationship. Which is kind of a cool idea, when you consider that John called Jesus "The Word."

    But at the same time, language will ALWAYS be imprecise, inadequate and imperfect. Every single word I use has a slightly different meaning to you!

    If I say I have a red car, in your mind's eye you might be seeing a fiery red - not the barely wine red our car actually is (when in fact, I don't even SEE the color the way most do - looks black to me!). When you hear "car" you may think of a Lamborghini.... not the beat up Lumina I am actually talking about.

    With the Bible, I think the trouble comes when people start thinking of IT as THE Truth - the reality it is POINTING TO.

    Funny, it really doesn't HAVE to be perfectly translated (not possible anyway!), or perfectly inerrant - it is the TRUTH it is pointing us to that perfect and inerrant. It's like a map, it doesn't have to be perfect- at all! - as long as it gets you where it is meant to get you!

  2. Hi StoryGuy!

    Douglas Adams was an amazingly witty writer. I don't think that he was nearly as strident in his atheism as Dawkins. I've been known to say that I can respect an honest atheist, I just couldn't be one any more than I could be a Fundamentalist.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts, again. You always have interesting and thoughtful things to say.

  3. Sinc the site does not have the Armenian language , this is the best I can do - not really funny - but a good exercise in internet techy stuff...
    Micah 6:8 ( NRSV ) 8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
    English to portugese
    O 6:8 de Micah (NRSV) 8 disse-o, mortal de O, o que é bom; e que o SENHOR exige de você mas faz justiça, e ama a bondade, e anda humilde com seu deus?
    Portugese to English
    The 6:8 of Micah (NRSV) 8 said it, mortal of, what it is good; e demands that you of you but makes justice, and loves the goodness, and walks humble with its god?
    French to Greek
    6:8 Micah (NRSV) τα 8 τον έχουν πει θανάσιμο, είναι καλός; και qu' αυτός t' απαιτεί σου αλλά κάνει μια δικαιοσύνη, και συμπαθεί την καλοσύνη, και βαδίζει ταπεινός με το Θεό του;
    Greek to English
    6:8 Micah (NRSV) have the 8 said him mortal, are good? and qu'? this t'? it requires your but makes a justice, and likes the kindness, and walks humble with his God?

  4. Well, I actually did do my favorite verse (1Kings 19:11-12), but it wasn't very amusing. Here's my other favorite, Isaiah 42:5-7, round-tripped through French:


    Thus says God, the LORD,

    who created the heavens and stretched them out,

    who spread out the earth and its produce,

    Who gives breath to its people

    and spirit to those who walk on it: I, the LORD, have called you for justice,

    I have grasped you by the hand;

    I formed you, and set you

    as a covenant for the people,

    a light for the nations,

    To open the eyes of the blind,

    to bring out prisoners from confinement,

    and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.

    Ainsi parle Dieu, l'Éternel, qui a créé les cieux et les allongés, qui étale la terre et ses produits, qui donne le souffle à son peuple et l'esprit à ceux qui marchent dessus : moi, le Seigneur, ai vous appelé pour la justice, j'ai compris que vous par la main ;

    Je vous forment et vous définir comme un Pacte pour le peuple, une lumière pour les nations, pour ouvrir les yeux des aveugles, pour faire ressortir les prisonniers de confinement et du donjon, ceux qui vivent dans l'obscurité.

    Thus says God, l' Lord, who created the heavens and the elongate, who spread out the Earth and its products, which gives breath to its people and l' spirit to those who walk on it: I, the Lord, have you called for justice, j' I understood that you by hand.

    I formed you and set you as a Covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the blind eyes, to bring out prisoners of containment and the Dungeon, those who live in l' darkness.