Parlez vous Francais? – The perils of online translation

Amazing, the internet. You can feed a phrase in one of the major world languages into a translation site like Babel Fish (, and out it will come another. Type, for example, “internet translation sites like Babel Fish are more trouble than they’re worth”, click the “English-to-French” button, and you get “les emplacements de traduction d’internet comme des poissons de Babel sont plus d’ennui que la valeur de they’re”. Put back into English, that yields “the sites of d’internet translation as of fish of Babel are more d’ennui that the value of they’re”, which, you will agree, is about as close to the original as to make no meaningful difference.

So when indignant officials at the Dutch foreign ministry received an email from a group of Israeli journalists that began, “Helloh bud, enclosed five of the questions in honor of the foreign minister: The mother your visit in Israel is a sleep to the favor or to the bed your mind on the conflict are Israeli Palestinian,” they might perhaps have guessed what had happened.

An article in the Guardian Unlimited, How Babel Fish almost caused a diplomatic incident, is a tragi-comic account of the perils of online translation services.  The article deals with Babelfish and how the system, in mistakeing the Hebrew word for “if” (ha’im) for the Hebrew word for “mother” (ha’ima) nearly created a diplomatic row.  Clearly, online translation  has some way to go before prime time.

Here’s a comparison between Babelfish and Google Translate, which switched the translation system from Systran to its own machine translation system for all the 25 language pairs available on the site.

Original text (completely hypothetical statement, of course)

I don’t believe this government is interested in human  rights in the least.


I don’t croient que ce gouvernement est intéressé par des droits de l’homme dans les mineurs.

and when translated back into English

I don’t believe that this government is interested by rights of l’homme in the minors.

Google Translate

Je ne crois pas que ce gouvernement est intéressé à l’homme Les droits en moins.

and when translated back into English

I do not believe that this government is interested in the man The rights and less.

This makes about as much sense as the Sri Lankan President or George Bush, which clearly won’t do if we are to take these services seriously.

Skype’s taken a different route (see I don’t speak Tamil – Skype to the rescue?), which I’ve never used and would be interested to know from anyone who as on whether it lived up to expectations and what, if any, the pitfalls were.

See also:


  1. Sri Lankan Mission website in Geneva: The flipside of getting to #1 « ICT for Peacebuilding (ICT4Peace) - August 15, 2008

    […] look and feel, which features online translation of the site (through Google Translate). Clearly, no one at the Mission knows the perils of relying on machine translation for diplomatic […]

  2. Real time machine translation: The present and future « ICT for Peacebuilding (ICT4Peace) - March 3, 2010

    […] well beyond the corporate world where this technology will be first deployed. Let’s be clear, significant perils of machine translation are well known and unlikely to go away for the next few years. And Microsoft is not the only one experimenting […]

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