Just Babeling.

Posted: August 15, 2008 in Life

   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.

  1. Jay says:


    The Babel Fish bit is funny but I ain’t touching the Bible parts of your post with a 10 foot ASP baton.

  2. Micha says:

    Jerry, a few reservations:

    1) In Western and central Europe most translations of the bible into vernacular languages came after printing was invented, so copying is less of an issue. Before that all the bibles were based on the same source so comparison was easier.

    2) When people began translating the bible after the reformation, the translators tended to be very meticulous scholars, weren’t they? So differences in translations (including the Latin) should probably be considered the result of deliberate thought rather than carelessness.

    3) On some level once the biblical words began being passed along, a shift in meaning is inevitable, isn’t it? Going back even to the early church. We Jews read the bible in Hebrew, supposedly the original language. But not only is it likely that the text went through changes over all this time, do we really know with our modern Hebrew the exact meanings of texts written so long ago?

    4) I’m not sure if the issue of translation and copying is a good way to stump bible thumpers. Persumably, they are aware that they are holding a translation, which they hope was made by the most meticulous of translators and theologians. But they believe it is a translation of the word of god, while othes view it as a human text, and read it as such.

    5) Jews believe that the OT is the word of god as told to Moses. Muslims believe that he Kuran is the word of god told to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel (Gibril). But don’t Christians believe that the NT was written by humans, even if god inspired ones?

    6) I don’t know how much of religious differences are the result of differences in translation as much as differences in interpretation.

    7) I do find that the translations from Hebrew don’t capture the feel of the language on the esthetic level.

    8) “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. ”

    Sounds like Mike

  3. jjchandler says:


    1- I know, but you’ll note that I did mention about the early drafts that “all of these problems and more were faced while dealing with copies kept in the same language as the text being copied. “ Copies in the English speaking world were being made after the printing press was getting it’s diapers wet in the world, but the Bible had already been through several translations by then. It had also been through several political alterations and faced yet another in the English speaking world when a king decided that he didn’t need a church that wanted a cut of his action. (I know… Overly simplified version of the Church of England’s birth, but we’ve talked it to death a few times before.)

    2- Some were and some weren’t. As I said, there were some scholars who believed themselves the ultimate word when they weren’t. We still have them today. Some of them decided that a passage or word must mean something because they’re personal biases lead them to believe so and they re-enforced that bias rather than simply do their job. Others simply weren’t as qualified as they should be.

    As I said, this isn’t mere supposition on my part. There have been found early letters and passages with notes by the original authors threatening others if they altered the texts, old texts where you can see the corrections of the corrected not mistake and old notes by religious elder monks telling the younger monks that they shouldn’t monkey with stuff.

    We also know that the texts that later scholars were translating had already gone through a process of alteration by ignorance or design. We know this because of the later discoveries of ancient texts that showed missing passages and slightly altered meanings.

    3- My point exactly. It has gone thorough changes. The fact that it is inevitable should be one of the biggest arguments against allowing people to declare that laws and rules be based on the word of God or a god since we really don’t have a direct link to those words and/or meanings. And that’s not even getting into the argument of whether or not some people believe in God or not.

    4- You’d be surprised by the beliefs of many I’ve come across, Micha. America is, as is many other countries I’m sure, filled with people who will tell you that their Bible is the exact word of God. Every word, letter and phrasing is The Word exactly as He said it. Hell, I can introduce you to people in my family who get pissed off about the “PC” nature of the depictions of Jesus these days. The PC depictions they’re speaking of? Any painting of Jesus where he’s not white with blondish brown hair and blue eyes. They actually get upset when people suggest that Jesus might have had a problem getting into the average American country club only a few short decades ago or might get an extra look or two by customs officials now.

    5- Yes, they believe the gospels to be written by man, but written by men who “were there” and were guided by God’s hand. Much of the NT is quoted as absolute fact by many and blanketed with the “God’s Word” argument. The fun bit is that they’ll claim it’s the absolute truth and God’s Word even when you can point out that some gospels actually contradict aspects of each other. They also accept as fact what’s not actually there. My favorite example of Mary not being and never having been a prostitute comes to mind…

    6- But when someone is claiming that a word is The Word; does it matter if the cause of the problem is one of differences in translation or differences in interpretation? Besides, there are documented cases of words that are believed to have been translated wrongly and a few that were based on the close similarity to other words with like meanings. The modern texts likely suffer from both issues.

    7- I wouldn’t know. The closest to fluent in Hebrew I come is knowing a guy who makes his own beer. He brew some good stuff too.

    I’ll wait while the really bad pun sinks in, causes injuries and slowly slinks away afterwards. Back yet? Ok.

    8- But he loves you so much. And he’s doing his level best at Peter’s to get a rise out of you as we type this now. He just wants you to come out and play with him. My suggestion is to have him wait for you out in the mine field. Just tell him to kick the soccer ball around a bit to kill… some time while waiting for you.

  4. jjchandler says:



  5. Sean says:

    He brew some good stuff! I get it!! It’s not FUNNY, but I get it….

    Look at the Flintstones for a minute. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Doo de doo, dum dum dum…oh, you’re back. Right in the theme song, they promise a gay old time. Now, I’ve seen a lot of Flintstones, and I never saw any hint that either Barney or Fred were screaming benders, nor did Wilma and Betty seem especially butch. Now, if gay can pretty much lose all it’s “jolly” connections in favor of “people who really overly enjoy the company of their own sex” in that short a time, what OTHER words have lost or gained new meanings? Look at the “Let he who is without sin…” story. I know some people from school that would really enjoy a town helping them get stoned. Probably not in the original way for MOST of them, but hey…!

    Trollboy really misses the old days when he could hijack a whole thread with “But nothing you said negates my point that I’m a noodleheaded moron that etc. etc. and so on and so forth.

  6. jjchandler says:

    I’ll take you one further, Sean. You and I could be said to be living with hussies. Bill Myers isn’t living with a Hussy though. Of course, that could only have been said several hundred years ago.

    The word “hussy” is a word that means a woman of less than stellar moral values these days, but it had an all together different meaning once. Hussy, in the English language, was simply the shortened version of housewuff (housewife) until around the late 16th century. A hussy was defined as the mistress of the household to the husband (from the Old Norse “husbondi) being the master of the household. It was also used to mean a thrifty, older woman.

    For some unknown reason in etymological circles the word changed in the early 17th century to become a harsher condemnation of a woman. It suddenly began appearing in places as a label for women who were the lowest end of the gene pool in the rural and urban social circles. Not long after that it became a slang term for women who were basically sluts, harlots and floozies. By the early 18th century the term was pretty much exclusively that and the original, more innocent meaning was dead and buried.

    Other words take on a slang meaning that’s 180% from what they actually mean while the original usage of the word is still commonplace. I know people who came out of Iron Man talking about what a bad film that was. Of course, they were using the relatively newer form of bad to say that they thought the film was very well done and enjoyed it greatly. If “bad” drops this meaning in the next 20 years; will people 1000 years from now accurately translate every text that contains bad-is-good bad?

    How about a word like fag? In America the word is an insult hurled at homosexuals as a grave insult. Because of the heavy exporting of American television, movies and music to the rest of the world, the word has taken on that meaning in other countries as well or has, at the very least, become known for that meaning. Yet many people in the UK still use the word fag to mean cigarettes. I have a friend form England who has amongst his family photos an old picture of his liberal activist sister holding up a poster board sign that reads “BAN FAGS” in giant red letters. She was at an anti-smoking rally. She used small words and big letters to make a sign that was more visible than one that would have been big words (Outlaw Cigarettes) in smaller letters.

    Now, could she have been trying to be cute with the word? Unlikely. She’s a bit of a militant smoke Nazi, no meat, only vegan, no fur and drive cars that run on good thoughts alone type of person. Oh, she’s also a pro gay rights and pro gay marriage advocate with a number of gay friends. She just grew up in a family that smoked a lot and called cigarettes by their once, where she grew up, far more common nickname and didn’t think twice about it.

    Still other words disappear and are quickly forgotten. Have you ever heard the word ‘pilgarlic’ used before? It was a once common term, a sometimes derisive term, for a bald man. It came from saying that a bald man’s head had the look of peeled garlic about it. It didn’t have a long shelf life compared to other words. Who’s to say that someone translating a text 1000 years from now will even accurately know what that means?

    We’re in a better place today because of the rise of the printing press and the creation of institutionalized standards for schools in many of the major nations, but we also suffer from many failings that plagued the old word world. New spellings for existing words as well as completely different meanings for words still pop up every year thanks to pop culture and the net. New words get created by accident, used regularly for whatever reason and then disappear after an extremely short shelf life. I mean, does anyone really believe that even the hardcore conservatives in talk radio will be using the words like “misunderestimate” and “strategery” in another ten years? If not, what will people reviewing news and editorial texts of the early 2000s one thousand years from now think those words really mean?

    Big mess. And it was worse long ago.

  7. Micha says:

    I always wonder: how do I know that the Hebrew words in the bible had the same meaning when they were written that we attribute to them now.

  8. jjchandler says:

    Actually, since my Hebrew is… weak… at best; how many words in Hebrew do you know of that mirror the words that Sean and I were talking about? Are there clear examples of words in Hebrew that have changed or been messed with in just the last century so that they would be unrecognizable in meaning to an Israeli of 100 years ago? Are there any words in Hebrew now that have taken on two meanings in the last century that are 180% from each other as the English word ‘bad’ has done?

  9. Sean says:

    In at least one language, they’ve adopted several English words for some new technology. Now, when I first saw that, (and I wish I could remember which language it was) I wondered if it was possible that “computer” was anywhere close in the original language to “person whose dressed in finery but still smells of bean farts.”

    Doesn’t fag also refer to a cord of wood? Take that for example. Stace lived her entire life until we moved in together in Philadelphia. No fireplace. No experience really with nature. If I said cord of wood, would she think I was trying to plug wood in? Gods, I hope not.

    Something I’ve always found interesting is local dialects. Pennsylvania’s a reasonably large state. Here, in the southeast part, we have hoagies and cheesesteaks and shtreets. Drive northwest for about forty minutes, they’re subs and you get people looking to order a couple two tree hot dogs. When Stace’s sister first moved to Rhode Island, she heard a couple people talking about tonic, didn’t know what the heck they were talking about.

  10. jjchandler says:

    Was it Japanese? I know that there are a number of new words in Japanese that are the same as the American word.

    I had a problem years ago like the one your talking about when I started working with a guy from Ohio. I was still in school and working at K-Mart when this guy started working in the back area with us. We needed to get some big freight moved and he asked us if we had a tow motor that we could use to do it.



    We just looked at him like he was speaking in Japanese and said that we didn’t even know what he was talking about. Ric then opened the bay doors, went outside and drove the forklift in to move the stuff. The guy looks at us and told us to not screw with him like that when we were under the wire on something. We still didn’t know what he was talking about until he pointed at the forklift and said that it was a tow motor.

    Who knew? Well, lots of people. Just not us.

  11. Sean says:

    It might have been Japanese, but if I said I was sure, I’d be lying.

    Same kinda thing happened once when my cousins and my aunt came up from Alabama. My cousin, before she went to bed, asked my mom for some sugar. Mom didn’t know what she wanted sugar for, and it was too late for any anyway. My aunt, born in Massachusetts and raised in the Bronx and now sounding like something out of Gone With The Wind explained that down home sugar meant a kiss.

  12. Micha says:

    The thing with Hebrew is that it was revived as a living language only a 100 years ago. A lot of words had to be invented for modern technology that did not exist in the bible or later hebrew texts. People who were used to hebrew as a second mostly religious language had to learn it and teach it to their children. As a result some Hebrew words took more time to take root, or continued to exist alongside foreign words pronounced in Israeli.

    Now Hebrew is a very living dynamic language with a lot of new words and expressions. Still with a lot of foreign word.

    So there is a very big gap between modern Hebrew speakers and the Bible. And there is also a gap between the first generations of Hebrew speakers and Israelis today. I think they would find a hard time understanding us. We have a better chance of understanding them, although they might sound strange to us. Their hebrew and the hebrew of the bible are more beautiful, but ours is very lively. There are people still alive today whose Hebrew still reflects the beauty of the earlier generations of modern Hebrew speakers.

    Sometimes the words we use in Hebrew are taken from European languages. The reviver of the Hebrew language invented a word for telephone that didn’t catch up. We say telephon, televisia, video, pijama, internet, but we have words for computer and electricity that are totally hebrew based. There are new hebrew word for logo and jingle, and genre, but they have not entered wide use. The word casetta is used alongside the hebrew word for cassette.

    I can’t think of a word whose meaning changed so much the way hussy did. The common word for a certain part of the male anatomy (verb included) actually means weapon. A nice expression meaning “arm yourself with patience” will be greeted with giggles, but even young Israelis will understand it, I hope.

    The phrase “A voice calling out in the wilderness” comes from the bible. It is used in the same meaning by Hebrew speakers. But there is a mistake made by Hebrew speakers and English speakers, but I don’t know if it entered straight into Hebrew usage, or if it came from foreign translations.

    The phrase in hebrew is:
    Kol Kore BaMidbar (3 words) voice calling inDesert

    but Kore, I’m told, also means a kind of vulture. If you go to the zoo here in Jerusalem you can see one. So the phrase is: a vulture calling out in the wilderness.

    But, how do they know that? How do they know that kore means vulture, or what kind of vulture? for centuries Jews did not live in Israel or see vultures here.

    Another thing is that I think the phrase in English is a good example of the beauty of English while the Hebrew of its beauty. The English is long, rich ornate. The Hebrew is simple, short, spare. The Hebrew is more appropriate to the phrase in both meanings.

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