In the book 'Mouse or Rat?: Translation as Negotiation', Umberto Eco conducts an experiment to expose the shortcomings of Alta Vista's automatic translation tool, Babelfish. He took a phrase then, using Babelfish, translated it into Italian and then took the results and translated them back into English. For instance, the phrase 'The works of Shakespeare' becomes 'Gli impianiti di Shakespeare' which, when translated back into English became 'The plants of Shakespeare' (at least that was the result Umberto Eco got, I actually got 'The systems of Shakespeare').
The problem faced by such translation tools is that they cannot discern context. When you have a language such as English which is full of homonyms, context becomes essential for identifying meaning, therefore, when Babelfish conducts its lexicon comparing exercise quite often the wrong meanings are applied to homonyms and this is exaggerated further when additional languages are introduced, leading to some humorous results. Umberto Eco used a chapter from Genesis to prove his point, but to reserve some semblance of originality, I shall use a different text and shall instead give it the rather difficult challenge of the opening paragraph to James Joyce's Ulysses:
"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: Introibo ad altare dei. Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called out coarsely: Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!"
I'll save you from the proceeding steps except to say that I first translated it from English to Dutch, from Dutch to French, from French to Greek and finally from Greek back into English and this was the result:
"Stately, myeloejde's Buck Mulligan they have come out stairhead that bol is reported foams in that they put a mirror and one crisscross scheermes. Dressinggown yellow, ungirdled, has been supported softly behind by generous air of morning. It has kept in the cover bol and intoned: The notice you raise the contralto National Electrical Company van Introibo. Orders, below stairs that I wrap sombre and grof it has detected it has called: Bol in the cover, Kinch! Bol in the cover, you horrible jesuit!"
For one last piece of online editing I put it through the fantastic Pornolize tool (which you can see at work in all its glory here on the official biography page for Tony Blair, watch out for the foul language though):
"Stately, myeloejde's Buck "Muffdiver" Mulligan they have come out stairhead that bol is reported foams in that they put a mirror and one crisscross scheermes. Dressinggown yellow, smacked, has been supported softly behind by gebangs air of cocksucking. It has kept in the cover bol and intoned: The notice you raise the contralto National "Bastard" Electrical Company van Introibo. Unclefucks, below thrusts that I wrap sombre and grof it has gangbanged it has blowed: Bol in the sex fighting cover, Kinch! Bol in the fingering cover, you horrible jesuit!"
The exercise certainly shows that Babelfish is no replacement for the careful and considered negotiation between a skilled translator and the original text, where faithfulness to the text does not require an exact word for word translation. But it also shows you how adept one can be to the art of procrastination.
David Markson: This Is Not A Novel
6 years ago