What is Babel Fish?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
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  • Last Modified Date: 11 August 2019
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Babel Fish is a free web tool made available through Yahoo! that translates inputted text or websites. Users can enter text up to 150 words and receive a translation, or they can enter the address of a website and be directed to a translated version of the site. Currently, Babel Fish has the capability to translate out of or into 12 languages, though not all pairs are available. All of the available languages -- Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish -- can be translated into or from English.

Babel Fish was developed by search engine company AltaVista and became a Yahoo! based service in May 2008. The technology behind Babel Fish is SYSTRAN, one of the oldest machine translation companies, founded in 1968 in La Jolla, California. SYSTRAN was originally developed to translate Russian into English for the United States Air Force during the Cold War. In 1986, SYSTRAN was purchased by the Paris-based Gachot family, though the company still has an office in La Jolla.


Babel Fish was named after a character in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The character is a small yellow fish, like the logo for the translation tool, that can be placed in the ear to allow someone to understand any language of the universe. The character, in turn, is named after the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, an account of the origin of the world's languages. Genesis 11 tells of the attempt of Babel's inhabitants to build a massive tower dedicated to the glory of man. In order to confound their attempt, God scattered the people of the city and gave each person a different language so they could not communicate.

Babel Fish usually translates well enough for the user to understand the gist of the translated material, but it does not claim to produce a perfect translation and in particular does not deal well with idioms. Round-trip translation, in which Babel Fish is used to translate from one language into another and then back to the original, often produces humorous results.


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Post 3

@indigomoth - It may be difficult but they are making some progress especially with artificial intelligence technology. Particularly when they set a program to learn a language organically rather than simply putting in words, it seems to work better. A true translator Babel fish is still a while off, but when it gets here it might be able to talk for itself as well as tell us what our neighbors are saying.

Post 2

The babelfish in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is supposed to both prove and disapprove the existence of God, although I'm not sure I ever understood how it was supposed to disapprove his existence.

I believe they are still working on translation technology, trying to perfect it, but unfortunately, language is so weird and complex it is almost impossible to make a true translation of it.

Context is just too difficult for a program to really translate, and every word has multiple meanings that can only be understood by the context.

Post 1

A really good way to examine a poem, or come up with new ideas when writing one, is to feed what you've already got through Babel Fish or a similar program. Put your text through a couple of different translations, before translating it back to English. The result will look awful, but it might teach you something about the words you've been using, and the ideas behind what you've written. It can help to teach you not to take similes and metaphors for granted.

It can also be absolutely hilarious.

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