I was toying with the idea of this post before and was thinking about doing it when the OSS story broke and caught my attention. I’d pretty much put it out of my head until Bill Myers emailed me about the dangers of Babelfish after I’d sent him an email about the free program on Yahoo. I actually knew of these dangers from playing around with the site and found many of them rather funny. I also saw a parallel in an old nit that I like to pick. When the war breaks out over this thread, blame Myers.
For those who have never seen the program, Babelfish is a language translation program. The name comes from a gag in The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. The Babel Fish is a small, harmless fish that, if stuck in your ear, translates any language you hear for you instantaneously. The program works much like that except that you don’t have to stick it in your ear, it only works with the printed word and it doesn’t quite work as well as the fish.
You see, it literally translates the words into their direct parallels in another language. The problem is that some languages don’t have direct parallels for some words. There is also the little matter of how some languages have a different basic grammatical structure than English. But words alone can be a silly thing. An example below:
English: “I am not fluent in German.”
German: “Ich bin nicht auf Deutsch fließend”
Back to English from German: “I am not flowing on German”
My wife, who does speak a little German, explained to me that there is no real word for “fluent” in German. In overly simplistic terms, the German language is a bit black and white in some matters. You either can or cannot do something. You don’t have many words for kind of being able to do something. You can speak German or you cannot speak it.
This is the site address by the way: http://babelfish.yahoo.com/
You can actually use the site to translate simple text to English, but you will have to do some serious translating of some of the translations to fully understand them. They can be quite humorous. Some of them are basically the same as the labels you get in foreign made products that are translated into English by someone who doesn’t speak English or understand the structure of the language. Funny, funny stuff.
One thing though isn’t as funny as it is interesting. The program simply translates without any understanding of what it’s translating or how and why certain phrases are structured and what they truly mean. Anything with any complicated meaning, subtle nuance or region specific references or slang is going to get completely jumbled. And the more languages you translate the text through, the more you twist and distort the original text’s meaning. An example below:
“When entering into a darkened area in an unknown part of town while chasing a subject on foot, it is critical that you be as aware as you possibly can of your surroundings. You never know who or what may be lurking around the next corner, in the side alleys or in the darkest of shadows. If you are pursuing someone and you will be moving in and out of lighted and unlighted areas that are close together; a simple trick is closing one eye whenever you enter a heavily lighted area. When you leave the more heavily lighted area, you simply open your eye again. This will allow you to retain some of your night vision and not enter into the shadows with absolutely no ability to see what lies within the darkness.”
Now, we are going to translate that through a series of languages. The series is English to German, German to French, French to Greek and finally Greek to English. The results are… Interesting… And that’s with everything in the original English spelled correctly.
“Participating in sector that in a unknown part of city, chases with the legs a subject, he is critical that you are also aware, it perhaps can that you you assiéger. They don’t know never, that or qu’? round the following [strimogma], in the [pleyrikes] byways or means darkest l’? the shade can persecute. If you practise quelqu’? one and you become in also and unlighted that they turn on sectors it moves that is together narrow? a simple tour closes a eye, whenever you infiltrate that turns on sector difficilement. If you leave what turns on sector difficilement, you open simply your eye again. This allows you in order to keeps something of aspect of your night and in order to it participates in the shades with absolutely the faculty to see, which lies in noircissement.”
You see, this is a perfect, if somewhat extreme, example of a problem I’ve always had with the Holy Rollers who want to claim that their (written in English) Bible is The Word and meant to the The Exact Word of God. It simply can’t be because it’s not the word as it was first spoken nor as it was first written. It’s not even the close second or third to that word as far as translations go. And I’m not even going to touch things the politically altered texts in thing like The King James version of the Bible or early texts coming out of the establishment of a church in Rome. No, I’m just going to address the honest attempts to interpret the Bible and to reprint it in the olden days.
The one image that so many have of ancient monks sitting at a table and copying pages of text while another monk looks on and approves the work is a bit romantic to say the least. Not every ancient text was copied by monks. Many were copied by whomever the local church thought could do the job. The problem there was that many of the people who did the job were borderline, if not completely, illiterate. That’s simply because most people were mostly illiterate back then. They could read enough to get by at the market or deal with a few minor day to day needs, but they weren’t able to read or write a book like the bible.
So how did they make copies? They did it the same way that a child might draw his favorite comic book character. They traced it by eye. They didn’t read the words and then rewrite them as much as they drew the shapes they saw on the page they were copying. And as you artists, even you very good ones out there, know quite well, you can’t reproduce a picture perfectly by doing that. You will change lines’ shapes or positions. You may even change words by accidentally altering a letter here and there.
And the monks weren’t much better. Many monks weren’t much more truly literate than the common folks of the time and the ones who were could actually be more problematic than the ones who weren’t. More than handful of educated monks believed in their own education a little too much. There have been documented cases of older texts being found where all of the next generation of copies coming from a specific monastery were “corrected” by the monks in charge. So widespread was this practice at one time that there are actually ancient texts and letters that have been found and preserved where elder monks or the original authors threatened great pain and vengeance upon any who took it upon themselves to fix, correct or clarify their works.
And all of these problems and more were faced while dealing with copies kept in the same language as the text being copied. The pain in the nads came when you took people who weren’t truly scholars in foreign languages and translated the works. They had to do the best they could and then abide by the decisions of a committee. But again, the various languages didn’t always have words that had direct parallels in other languages. And when sometimes you did have a direct parallel, you had words that didn’t quite have the same meaning regionally that they had in the other country and the other country’s language. In the end, they were taking “educated” guesses.
And this happened over and over again as The Word was moved from one land to another and one tongue to another over and over again. The Word moved farther and farther away from the language, meaning and structures that the words were original spoken and written in. It wasn’t as badly done as the mindless Babelfish program, but there were still flaws. And this isn’t supposition on my part. Almost every time that ancient texts have been discovered in the last 20 years they’ve shed light on errors, omissions and mistranslations in the modern versions of that particular text. And then you can toss in all the issues that I said I wouldn’t deal with where politics played a roll in the rewriting and reshaping of the texts and you really get a mess in some areas.
And that leads me to my issues with Bible thumpers and Holy Rollers. Anyone who holds up a Bible that’s not in the original language and comprised of the original drafts of each passage and still claims that they are presenting The Word as God supposedly spoke it is either ignorant or arrogant. What we have today is a text full of some good ideas, some nice guidelines and some pretty ok suggestions for how to live our lives. But that’s all that it is. It’s not the one true truth and it’s not the word of God. It’s just a book of good ideas and stories about past events that may or may not be historically factual.
And the one thing it isn’t above all other things is it is not an excuse for you to try and force me or anyone else to live our lives or make decisions that impact our lives based your beliefs of what those words mean.