From Babel Fish to Woohoo!

Today’s Web column for CBC Saskatchewan’s Afternoon Edition


If you’ve ever watched Star Trek, you’ve heard of the Universal Translator. The Universal Translator is a computer device that is able to instantly translate almost any alien language, no matter how bizarre, into American English.

Of course, the Universal Translator doesn’t exist…yet. But all over the Web you can find sites that offer you free online translation of selected text or entire Web sites. Do they work? How well do they work?

Computer translation is more properly called machine translation, probably because the field is a lot older than you might imagine: in 1954 a successful experiment in machine translation was carried out in which more than 60 Russian sentences were translated into English. That success led to a lot of research into machine translation, and the authors of that study claimed that within three to five years, the problem of machine translation would be solved.

It hasn’t actually worked out that way. The difficulty, as any human translator can tell you, is that to truly understand a source text, the translator has to not only know what the words mean, but also understand the grammar, syntax and idioms of the source language, and sometimes even the customs and culture of those that speak it. This is a challenge for humans, much less computers.

The early machine translators used rule-based systems, combining cross-language dictionaries with a set of rules that might explain, for example, how in French adjectives usually follow nouns, while in English the adjectives usually come first. The newer (and increasingly successful approach) is called statistical-based machine translation, in which computer programs analyze large collections of previous translations and figure out the statistical probabilities of words and phrases in one language ending up in particular words or phrases in another. These statistics are then used when new text is evaluated.

But never mind that. After all, the very best machine translation systems aren’t actually what you’re seeing when you go to most translation Web sites. At many of these, the free translation is just a sampler to convince you to invest in software you have to pay for, plus additional support from actual human.

If you don’t want to pay anything, you make do with what they give away. So let’s see how well they work, shall we?

The best way to judge would be to be bilingual, which I, sadly, am not. So I chose the easy and not-very-fair route of what’s known as “round-trip translation”–putting the English text in, translating it into another language, then translating it back into English. As my text, I chose the first few lines of O Canada. As my second language, I chose Spanish.

The results were not inspiring, but certainly somewhat amusing.

I began with what’s probably the most famous online translation service of them all, Babel Fish (the name comes from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy–the Babel Fish was his off-the-well version of Star Trek‘s Universal Translator).

Babel Fish was developed by AltaVista, and it uses one of the most popular rule-based machine translation technologies, developed by SYSTRAN, which comes with this disclaimer, “While the methods used for translation are advanced, the service makes no claim to produce a perfect translation: the best that is claimed is that it can show the gist of a page or text.”

So, into Babel Fish I put:

O Canada, our home and native land,
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The true north, strong and free.
From far and wide, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee!

After its transition to Spanish and back to English again, it read:

Or Canada, our homemade and native earth, true love of the patriotic one in all what the children order. With the hearts that shine intensely we see ascent of thee, the one of the true north, strong and it frees. Of distant spot and wide, Or Canada, we are stopped in the protector for thee!

“We are stopped in the protector for thee.” I quite like that last line.

I knew about Babel Fish already (Google also has a SYSTRAN-based translator, by the way, but then, Google has pretty much everything, so why bother mentioning them?). To find some translation sites I didn’t know about, I looked on the wonderful site called Omniglot, which is all about the “writing systems and languages of the world” and has great links and information about all things linguistic.

It led me to, which belongs to Smart Link Corporation, ” a developer, publisher and distributor of multilingual software products and web-based solutions” with”10,000 customers from 65 countries” including the United Nations, NATO, NASA, the Department of Defense in the U.S., and many more.

From their free online translator I got:

Or Canada, our house and native ground, Love of real patriot in all the order of children thy. With burning hearts we see the increase, The real strong and free north. Of distant and wide, Or Canada, We are standing up of guard for thee.

“We are standing up of guard for thee” is slightly better than “We are stopped in the protector for thee”…I guess.

At, owned by SDL International, which claims its “Enterprise Translation Server” is “the most powerful automatic translation engine on the market today,” I got:

Canada OR, our home and the country, the True love of patriot in all they children order. With shining hearts that we see rises him, The free, strong, and true north. Of all over, Canada OR, We stop in guard for him!

“We stop in guard for him!” That’s my favorite so far. Can’t say I notice that “the most powerful automatic translation engine on the market today” exactly stood head and shoulders over the others.

And so it goes.

Several sites (such as gave the same translation as Babel Fish, indicating they, too, are using SYSTRAN.

More interesting was the site of the Barcelona-based Translendium. Their “Comprendium” technology gave me:

O Canada, our homehouse and the native earthland, love of patriot Verdadero in everything they the children order. With incandescent hearts we see the increase of thee, El true north, strong and free. From everywhere, O Canada, we, parapor thee, are standing in guard!

Aside from the bizarre intrusion of Verdadero, this is actually one of the best translations yet. “O Canada, we, para/por thee, are standing in guard.” I also like the fact it gives you a choice on some words.

So does Reverso, which uses software from the Paris-based company Softissimo. Although, as you’ll note, Verdadero (which apparently means factual, true, unfeigned), makes its untranslated appearance again:

Her(It) or Canada, our house and natal land, the patriot Verdadero loves (pleases) in whole they the control (the order) of children. With the ignition of hearts we see the raise of thee, the real one of the north, strong and the free (free). Of throughout, her(it) Or Canada, we are standing up in police officer(guard) for thee!

“Or Canada, we are standing up in police officer(guard) for thee!” It certainly got the gist, although my favorite line here has to be “With the ignition of hearts we see the raise of thee…”

Are any of these going to replace human translators soon? Probably not…but with the advances in computing power and technology, they probably will someday. We won’t see a Universal Translator–which is, after all, just a creation of writers who can’t very well have their characters spend all their time trying to learn other languages–but we may come close.

(An aside: my novel Lost in Translation–look, there’s a link to buy a copy over there in the sidebar!–is built on the idea of an interstellar commonwealth of races that achieve the best possible translation through an artificial symbiotic life form that acts as a kind of universal nervous system interface. Two Translators–natural empaths trained for the task–each carrying a symbiote inside, can connect directly to each other’s brains. This works very well in the story, but is probably not a technology we can expect to see adopted on Earth any time soon…)

And when you get tired of translating from English into other languages and back again, how about just translatin from English into…English?

At a British site called Whoohoo you can find “translators” that turn standard English into various English dialects, including Irish, Scottie, “Yorkshire Chicken Run,” Brummie, “Jolly Well Spoken” (upper class), Scouse, Geordie and, ahem, Ali G.

And, of course, Cockney Rhyming Slang. To conclude, here’s O Canada as translated into that:

o canada, our Pope in Rome and native land, true patriot golden dove in aw thy sons command. wif glowin’ ‘earts we clock thee rise, the true norf, Pin’ Pong and buckshee. from far and duck ‘n’ dive, o canada, we stand on guard for thee!

Let’s sing that at the next Rider game.

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Easy AdSense Pro by Unreal