Babelfish

It’s not easy, is it? And I shouldn’t laugh. Really. There is so much I can’t do. But it’s a relief to find amusement in the daily trials of others. I hope Arthur Dent really received proper translations through his fish, and that the six Hitchhiker books weren’t all based on comic intergalactic misunderstandings of what had been said.

Donna Moore finds interesting stuff in her searches for Scottish crime writers and their further adventures in Europe. There are blurbs and whatnot, originally written in German or Dutch or Spanish, and once processed by Donna through an online translator, the resulting reads are very funny indeed. (This is just one example, because I didn’t feel like searching through every post of hers, excellent though they are.)

There was a flurry of excitement, or worry, last week among Roger Whittaker fans, over some article in a German magazine. Everybody wanted to know what it said, but nobody could understand it. Überfans Vicky and Rory in Canada gave the article the babelfish treatment and the result was almost worse than the German original. With the exception of a couple of words I got the gist from the article itself and translated it. It was very bad, but not primarily because of what I did to it. Working it into normal English brought home quite how awful the German was. I know sensationalist magazines want to be exactly that, but can’t they put together complete sentences while lying about famous people?

And then I almost fell out with a fellow fan over the use of the word babelfish. He didn’t know it, and was afraid I was calling him something bad, when I was simply complaining about automated translations. Phew. That could easily have escalated into a Swedish/Norwegian incident.

The extremely brave and kind Debi Gliori ventured into these dangerous waters in a comment recently, in order to speak to me in my own language. The effect was similar to that which your beloved child might come up with when they try really hard, and you actually like the result better for all its imperfections. You won’t catch me doing it, though.

When the witch was ten she acquired an English penfriend and, with the help of mother-of-witch, wrote some seriously weird letters to this poor girl in Sidcup. (The girl was quite well off, as a matter of fact.) By eleven I got tired of waiting for the overworked mother-of-witch to help, so wrote the letters on my own, with brief glances at dictionaries. They must have been awful! Although, a few years on the letters got a lot better.

Practice makes – if not perfect – at least better. Someone in my German class at school was often late. The price for being allowed in late was to apologise in German. She had that phrase down to perfection in the end.

Undskyld! (It’s harder to say than it looks. And fyi it’s not German.)

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9 responses to “Babelfish

  1. Verb eatingness. That’s worth the price of admission right there.

    Thank you, Babelfish.

  2. You couldn’t make it up! I’m sure my early attempts at murdering English was more of the groan variety than the laughing until you burst type.

  3. I really wonder what babelfish could be a pejorative word for, now.

  4. He thought I was accusing him of being one who passes on unpleasant gossip. As if I would ever do that, and particularly not in a public forum!

    (Fishy type who babbles..?)

  5. Oh, that does make sense – it’s that sneaky long ‘a’ confusing me!

  6. I went to France for a summer when I was 15, and had my best friend (who was far better at French than I was) rewrite my appalling letter, introducing myself to my host family. The disappointment with which they greeted my pathetic attempts at conversation over the next six weeks have stayed with me as a reminder that honesty is usually the best policy when it comes to language. At least they could have started feeling contempt for me a few months earlier.

  7. Helen Graves

    @Witch – I always assume people have read Douglas Adams, but have found this can lead to confusion. Not everyone gets Vogon poetry jokes, to my sorrow.

    @Meg – LOL. My written French was OK in those days; my spoken French was nonexistent. So even without the writing help I would’ve ended up in a similar mess.

    Sometimes when avoiding work (that is, frequently) I use the online babelfish tool to translate passages of Famous Lit into Japanese and back out again – you end up with some wondrous things. Fiona typed in the first sentence of Moby Dick and got “Ishmael me telephone” which still makes me laugh.

  8. Meg – maybe that family was hard to please, no matter what. It’s just your insecurities showing.

    Helen – you can’t just sit there and not work!

  9. I can’t just sit there and not work? Just watch me! But today – of course, because it’s Saturday – I’m actually getting stuff done. Nothing entertaining, but hey.

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