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Babelfish Sparks Minor Diplomatic Row 331

Posted by Zonk
from the careful-how-you-type-that dept.
Stony Stevenson writes with a link to a cautionary tale on the ITnews site. A group of journalists heading to The Netherlands were gathering some information prior to the trip. They sent off an email to the Dutch foreign ministry asking some questions, but as they weren't native speakers they needed some help. Unfortunately, they turned to Babelfish for official correspondence. "The beginning of the email read: '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.'"
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Babelfish Sparks Minor Diplomatic Row

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  • by SnoopJeDi (859765) <snoopjedi@gmaiCOUGARl.com minus cat> on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:25PM (#21298125)
    Which babelfish are we talking about here?
    • by caffeinemessiah (918089) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:28PM (#21298173) Journal

      Babelfish sparks minor diplomatic row

      Morons trusting the legendary untrustworthiness of Babelfish for official work spark minor diplomatic row.

      There.

      • by MBCook (132727) <foobarsoft@foobarsoft.com> on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:37PM (#21298371) Homepage

        I saw this yesterday and chuckled a little, but it just raised a bunch of questions for me.

        1. How good a journalist can you be if you trust Babelfish to translate stuff for you?
        2. How could you rely on the answers you got since you'd have to run them through Babelfish also?
        3. Could the interviewees not tell that it was a terrible machine translation? Are you telling me it was all perfect up until that sentence?

        The first two are the ones that really puzzle me. Even if it were just a journalist at a high school paper, I would expect them to do better. Go ask for help from the local university or something. Babelfish? Really?

        • by Jeremiah Cornelius (137) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:48PM (#21298607) Homepage Journal
          "Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect."
          --Mark Twain, on English as She Is Spoke [wikipedia.org]

          We have bested the Portuguese masters of muddle! [zompist.com] It took the brilliance of a near-passing grade on the Turing test.
        • The legend that "Out of sight, out of mind" translated out of and back into English came out as "invisible idiot" is an ancient one. I expect that about ten thousand people have tried this using Bablefish; for what it's worth, here was my try [sff.net] from about ten years back.

          I didn't think to try Dutch to Hebrew, though!

        • Could the interviewees not tell that it was a terrible machine translation? Are you telling me it was all perfect up until that sentence?

          Well the preceding sentence stated
          "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!"

          So that didn't help them much..

        • by s4m7 (519684)

          How good a journalist can you be if you trust Babelfish to translate stuff for you?
          Moreover, why not go ahead and pay a translation service? professional translation with proofreading is usually less than $0.30 USD per word.
          • by WormholeFiend (674934) on Friday November 09, 2007 @03:59PM (#21299787)
            Moreover, why not go ahead and pay a translation service? professional translation with proofreading is usually less than $0.30 USD per word.

            My guess is A) they did not want to spend any money and/or B) they were in a hurry.

            Plus, for people in a hurry, rush translation orders usually (at least) double in price.

            I remember one time, one of my translator colleagues got a call from a client in a hurry, asking why the translation was taking so long and if his [translation] machine was broken.

            My colleague explained that translations are done by people, not machines, which also explained the cost. He added in jest/sarcasm that if someone wanted an instantaneous and free translation, one simply needed to use Babelfish.

            Five minutes later, the office admin came to his desk, saying that translation order had been cancelled.

            We laughed our collective asses off when we took that cancelled document and had it translated by Babelfish.
        • by jank1887 (815982)
          I use babelfish or its other online equivalents quite a bit in my professional work. But here's the catch: I use it for my own reading. I use it to translate something that I either need to get a general understanding of, or for one of the languages where I'm already at least familiar, as a bulk translation dictionary. I would never trust it for information I'm passing TO someone in a professional regard. Think of it like Wikipedia. Everyone uses it as a convenient brain extension [xkcd.com], but you don't refer
      • by SatanicPuppy (611928) * <Satanicpuppy&gmail,com> on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:40PM (#21298425) Journal
        The real hilarity of it is, in the Netherlands, of all places, you can find tons of english speakers. Hell, the people who got the letter probably spoke decent english. Why, in gods name, would you do such an amatuer translation, and not just assume that someone will be able to read it.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by cayenne8 (626475)
          They should have used the Hungarian phrasebook from Monty Python....

          "Ya! Ya! Ya! Ya! Do you waaaaant ... do you waaaaaant ... to come back to my place, bouncy-bouncy?"

        • by forkazoo (138186)

          The real hilarity of it is, in the Netherlands, of all places, you can find tons of english speakers. Hell, the people who got the letter probably spoke decent english. Why, in gods name, would you do such an amatuer translation, and not just assume that someone will be able to read it.

          Yeah, I have heard similar stories before, and they always shock me. I mean, I guess it makes sense to try and do a good-faith effort to send a message in the reader's native tongue, but you should always include the source

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by kryten_nl (863119)
          They were translating from Hebrew to English.

          Why are these journalists, who should have had _some_ form of education, not able to write English? Is the most relevant question.
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by lgw (121541)

            Why are these journalists, who should have had _some_ form of education
            You answered your own question there. It's not like these were bloggers, who would need to worry about getting their fact straight.
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by bodfa (656636)
          Actually they were translating from Hebrew to Dutch.
          Note that the total number of Hebrew speakers is fairly small
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebrew_language/ [wikipedia.org] (15 mil)
          VS English with 1.8 billion. Odds are they would have had a translator anyway though...
        • by johannesg (664142)
          Having read the fine article, I'd say that would be because the bad translation was the work of Israeli journalists.

        • by smoker2 (750216)
          I'm guessing you're American *.
          Maybe they were trying to show a bit of respect, and making the effort to communicate. How arrogant would it be to send a message and leave the translation of it up to the recipient ?
          * Maybe not, you said "tons" and yanks use pounds for everything.
      • by torako (532270) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:47PM (#21298601) Homepage
        Idiots who trust legendary untrustworthiness of Babelfish for the official less important diplomatic file of the work spark. There, I translated it to Dutch and back using Babelfish for some added clarity.
        • That's definitely "news for nerds, material that is important". :)
        • Gee... I ran the same double-translation and got "All your base are belong to us!" No wonder there was a diplomatic incident!!

    • Yeah didn't the author warn us that the bablefish caused more and bloodier war than anything else?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by CastrTroy (595695)
      The one that leaves any untranslated words untranslated. This is probably my biggest beef with babelfish. I think it would be better if it returned the translation with the words it couldn't understand in red or something, or offer a choice of possibilities, based on words that looked the same.
  • by baldass_newbie (136609) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:27PM (#21298153) Homepage Journal
    I thought that was a new strain of Dutch hydro at first...
    Silly me.
  • by iknownuttin (1099999) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:28PM (#21298175)
    "How could this email possibly have been sent?" an Israeli diplomat told the Jerusalem Post. "These journalists have sparked a major incident."

    How can journalists spark a major diplomatic event?

    • by Volante3192 (953645) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:31PM (#21298225)
      William Randolph Hearst?

      Muhammed cartoons?

      Watergate?
      • Mod Parent Up! (Score:3, Insightful)

        So true! Journalists are a powerful group. They are the eyes and ears of the public and have a tremendous influence on public opinion. The lead up to the war in Iraq. No journalists asked questions, no politicians. Journalists wield the power to shape perception, and perception might as well be reality for most people.
        • Re:Mod Parent Up! (Score:5, Insightful)

          by lgw (121541) on Friday November 09, 2007 @04:35PM (#21300279) Journal
          Journalists write fiction related to current events. It astounds me that they have any credibility left. Have you ever read manistream journalism about a technical issue that you were expert in? Total crap right? Do you think that's unusual somehow? Have you ever been interviewed, or read about events in which you participated? Total fabrication, right? Do you think that's somehow unusual?

          Even when people complain about the press, they usually complain about the press failing to mislead the public in the correct direction. Amazing.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Koiu Lpoi (632570)
            The technical issue is often due to Journalists having to dumb down technical subjects for the public to understand - or, in some cases, to have technical issues dumed down for them.

            As for the "Total fabrication, right?" line, remember that journalists have an obligation to report on only the facts and what's told to them by credible sources. Chances are very good that, despite you thinking you most absolutely know what happened, chances are you haven't a clue. It's the same affect as witnesses to crimes.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ichigo 2.0 (900288)
      Most likely the diplomat wanted to feel important for resolving the "major incident".
    • by owlnation (858981) on Friday November 09, 2007 @03:16PM (#21299115)

      How can journalists spark a major diplomatic event?
      Absolutely. I do not believe this story for one single second.

      Firstly, diplomats are diplomats because they are smart and non-reactionary. They would not react like this to mails that presumably came from a domain that identified the senders as foreign journalists -- or otherwise identified the journalists as being just that.

      In addition to this, (having lived in Holland myself) the Dutch are generally pretty good with the fact that few people speak Dutch. They are also used to dealing in a number of languages, and the sometimes accidental comedy that ensues. It's clear that the senders of this mail were not native speakers -- thus why would anyone overreact?

      Truth is -- they wouldn't.

      I call Bullshit.
      • by CorSci81 (1007499)

        Firstly, diplomats are diplomats because they are smart and non-reactionary.

        I disagree [wikipedia.org].

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by binford2k (142561)
        and babelfish doesn't even do Hebrew ....
      • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 09, 2007 @06:25PM (#21301881)
        There was no overreaction.

        According to local reporters here is what happenened: 5 Israeli journalists were preparing to go to The Netherlands. One of them, who (it turned out) didnt speak any English, was tasked with sending questions ahead. He used Babelfish to translate the Hebrew. Unfortunately, in Hebrew the word for "of" is close to the word for "mother". So, lots of "mother" in the text. Dutch diplomats were puzzled (I've read the text, it looked a bit like "all your mother belong to us") and asked for clarification. After which the other journalists found out and it was reported.

        All in all, no big incident (just mild curiosity), but the journalists involved were very ashamed when it all came out and seem to have postponed their trips for the moment. Too bad, could have been fun having them on talkshows :)

  • by pembo13 (770295) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:30PM (#21298205) Homepage
    Are you sure they didn't use some Microsoft based speech engine?
  • Huh? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by R2.0 (532027) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:30PM (#21298215)
    1) Why does anything involving a bunch of journalists have to do with diplomacy?

    2) Does the country in question have a stick so far up their colective asses they couldn't laugh this off?

    3) Or is the headline total flamebait, and I'm a sucker?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by magarity (164372)
      2) Does the country in question have a stick so far up their colective asses they couldn't laugh this off?

      This seems the most likely answer. The text is so amazingly bad that it's obvious to anyone that it's at least a complete mistake, if not also obviously a very bad machine generated translation. It's not like the whole thing was reasonable except for one bad insult about the recipient's mother; the whole dang thing is just blatant nonsense.

      If your spam filter didn't automatically junk
    • by Minwee (522556)

      3) Or is the headline total flamebait, and I'm a sucker?

      Why don't you find out? Go to Babelfish [digital.com] and try translating some text into and out of Hebrew, just to see how well it does.

      After looking closely at the language options presented, ask yourself if there is anything hard to believe about the /. headline, summary, linked article, and even linked article from the linked article.

    • by westlake (615356)
      1) Why does anything involving a bunch of journalists have to do with diplomacy?

      The reporter asks "Is waterboarding torture?"

      The AG-designate who legalisms make news on Al Jazerra wins confirmation - but he does not win friends abroad.

      2) Does the country in question have a stick so far up their colective asses they couldn't laugh this off?

      It is unprofessional. It shows an elemental lack of courtesy and respect. In many societies the formalities are important.

  • by AltGrendel (175092) <ag-slashdotNO@SPAMexit0.us> on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:31PM (#21298231) Homepage
    They used the "English to Dutch Jive" setting.
    • Oblig. (Score:5, Funny)

      by rock217 (802738) <(slashdot) (at) (rockshouse.com)> on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:42PM (#21298489) Homepage Journal
      Jive Lady: Oh stewardess! I speak jive.
      Randy: Oh, good.
      Jive Lady: He said that he's in great pain and he wants to know if you can help him.
      Randy: All right. Would you tell him to just relax and I'll be back as soon as I can with some medicine?
      Jive Lady: Jus' hang loose, blood. She gonna catch ya up on da' rebound on da' med side.
      Second Jive Dude: What it is, big mama? My mama no raise no dummies. I dug her rap!
      Jive Lady: Cut me some slack, Jack! Chump don' want no help, chump don't GET da' help!
      First Jive Dude: Say 'e can't hang, say seven up!
      Jive Lady: Jive ass dude don't got no brains anyhow! Hmmph!
      • by magarity (164372)
        It's only truly funny as 'June Cleaver' instead of 'Jive Lady'; nevermind the credits. The dialog is only mildly amusing in that it's spoken by some middle class suburban looking woman but it's hysterical when it's spoken by that specific middle class suburban woman.
  • by Kelson (129150) * on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:34PM (#21298299) Homepage Journal
    At least the words, "I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle" didn't drift across the conference table, resonating across time and space.
  • Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
    • by ukemike (956477) on Friday November 09, 2007 @04:07PM (#21299873) Homepage
      I like translating a sentence back and forth between languages.

      english->spanish->english

      I have taste to backwards translate an oration forwards and between the languages.

      english->german->english

      I may translate a sentence between languages back and forth.

      english->russian->english

      I love to transfer proposal back and forth between the languages.

      english->greek->english

      I wish a proposal back and forth between the languages.

  • by Critical Facilities (850111) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:35PM (#21298333) Homepage
    Regression of palpable anguish forseen within future modification of linguistic tendency laden spoken word.*

    * Translated via Babelfish from Dutch Foreign Minister's reply
  • by Rezazur (677119) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:36PM (#21298349)
    Well, at least they didn't use the Vista speech recognition. That could end up as some MAJOR diplomatic misunderstanding...
  • by Sique (173459) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:37PM (#21298375) Homepage
    "To err is human, to really screw up, you need a computer."

    That said I remember a story I heard once from a neighbour. He was in Moscow for a conference, and in the morning he spilled coffee on his tie. So he was wondering i) where to get a necktie in the morning around the hotel and ii) what the hell the russian word for "necktie" is. He remembered: It was similar to the german word for the same thing. So he just tried, walked over to the nearest kiosque and asked the russian lady: "Kravat?" She was killing him with her stare, and he suddenly realized: kravat = bed. galstukh = necktie.
  • To me, the Netherlands and Israel are two prime examples of countries known for their high level of English literacy. Why wouldn't they just use English but rely on an automated translator?
  • by vux984 (928602) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:39PM (#21298407)
    FTFA:

    The beginning of the email read: '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.'

    The translation was flawed as Babelfish confused 'ha'im', the Hebrew word for 'if', with 'ha'ima', which means 'mother'.


    Oh!!! Of course, that makes sense. Lets fix that right up: s/mother/if

    Helloh bud, enclosed five of the questions in honor of the foreign minister: The if your visit in Israel is a sleep to the favor or to the bed your mind on the conflict are Israeli Palestinian.

    I don't know about you, but I suspect there might be additional flaws.

    • The translation was flawed as Babelfish confused 'ha'im', the Hebrew word for 'if', with 'ha'ima', which means 'mother'.

      "ha'ima" actually means "the mother". So, while bablefish may produce errors, apparently so do reporters... Also, IIRC, in non-transliterated Hebrew, the two words are homonyms.

    • Whole Story is BS (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Slashdot Parent (995749) on Friday November 09, 2007 @03:16PM (#21299113)
      I'm beginning to suspect that the whole story is a hoax.

      First off, babelfish doesn't translate Hebrew, and with good reason. Hebrew is hard for a computer to translate. The three letters, Heh Aleph Mem could have just as easily been translated to "the nation" or "the nut" (as in nuts and bolts) as it was to "the mother". The only way to know the correct translation is to know the context of the word, which is not always easy.

      Secondly, whomever wrote this hoax doesn't speak Hebrew very well. You don't have to go from "ha'im" to "ha'ima" to get from "if" to "the mother". In fact, the letters Heh Aleph Mem could be read as "ha'im" (if) or "ha'aim" (the mother) without having to add a letter to get all the way to "ha'ima".

      Lastly, the Dutch are world-renowned for their extreme tolerance. There is no way a Dutch person would be deeply offended over something like this.
  • by tiedyejeremy (559815) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:41PM (#21298435) Homepage Journal
    Sad but true. I've seen too many people who have passed the National Standardized Tests and graduated High School who write about as coherently as what was posted.
  • Masonry Stevenson write ITnews with a connection to a warning tale at the place. A group journalists who lead to the Netherlands collected what information before travel. They sent a e-mail to the Dutch foreign ministry putting some questions, but since they were no domestic participants they had one or other aid necessary. Unfortunately, they twisted to Babelfish for official correspondence. The beginning of read e-mail: Included bud Helloh, five of the questions for the ere of the Minister for Foreign Aff
  • Ironically, the "original" Babel Fish was supposed to have caused more and bloodier wars than any other discovery in galactic history because it increased understanding between planets.
  • When things like this happen, it would be awesome if you could make light of it. What you really do is bring the journalists in, have a public news conference, and turn it into a small roast.

    "I couldn't tell if I was getting an email from Dutch journalists or bankers from Nigeria."

    "Mossad was flipping out... they thought this was a death threat from Borat."

    "At least they spell better than Bush."

    Then you give the journalists a nice gift basket or something, to show it's all in good fun, get some good public
  • by Slashdot Parent (995749) on Friday November 09, 2007 @02:56PM (#21298745)
    I can't find any Hebrew translation option on the babelfish website [altavista.com].

    Furthermore, in the Jerusalem Post article [jpost.com], they point to a site babelfish.com, which appears to be a SEO site and doesn't do translations at all.

    Compound that with the question of "Why would the Dutch Foreign Ministry care about an email from some random Israeli reporter?", and I'm guessing that this entire story is a hoax.

    Yes, I realize that the Jerusalem Post is supposedly a high-quality paper, but the fact that they linked to a site (babelfish.com) that doesn't even do online translations makes me think that this wasn't their most well-researched and well-substantiated work. If this is really causing such a fuss in Holland, how come there is nothing in the Dutch press about this?
    • by zmooc (33175) <zmooc&zmooc,net> on Friday November 09, 2007 @04:31PM (#21300221) Homepage
      It's not a hoax for sure; the Dutch government responded that it was real and that it didn't really bother them. They cancelled the trip the interview was about, however, since the journalists didn't speak english well enough for it to be of any use;-)

      The translation with babelfish was from english to dutch - probably they used other software to translate from hebrew to english first.

      But the part about the dutch government giving a fuck was definately a hoax.

      If you can read dutch, here's a link. http://www.depers.nl/binnenland/120757/E-mail-Isra%C3%ABl-schokt-Verhagen.html [depers.nl]
  • The funny thing is, even high school dropouts in the Netherlands are likely to speak English, French, and German quite well (though they often hold back on speaking German for, uh, cultural reasons). They are a stone's throw from countries speaking those languages, and unlike many other places, when they import television shows, they keep the original languages and add the subtitles in Dutch.

    Plus the Dutch language is not deep in terms of dimensional vocabulary. While the Eskimos may have 70 words for snow,
    • While the Eskimos may have 70 words for snow

      Not quite, according to Stephen Fry, ( QI ), who reckons it's one of those Arctic myths.

      How many words do the Eskimo have for snow?
      A popular myth claims that the Eskimos have 50, 100 or even 400 words for snow in their language, compared to English's one word. Like all myths, this one is not exactly true. When you consider how many words there are in English to describe snow (such as ice, slush, sleet, hail, snow flake, powder, frozen water, etc.) it becomes evid
  • the situation would have gone like this had everyone just stuck with the script:
    1. dispassionate dry political question

      translated into dutch through babelfish->
    2. middle eastern themed solicitation for sex with your mom

      response from dutch foreign minister->
    3. apoplectic anger, outrage, and a declaration of war by the netherlands on the journalist's home country featuring tactical nukes, biological/chemical weaponry, and deep undercover black ops sabotage

      translated into english through babelfish->
    4. dispassiona
  • by Minwee (522556) <dcr@neverwhen.org> on Friday November 09, 2007 @03:01PM (#21298845) Homepage

    It couldn't have possibly been Babelfish, since Babelfish doesn't support Hebrew.

    It may have been babylon.com [theregister.co.uk], but this hasn't been confirmed.

  • "The beginning of the email read: '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.'"
    As an English translation of an email in Dutch orginally written in Hebrew but translated through babel fish, it sounds more like they consulted Ali G or Miss South Carolina Teen USA. I wonder if it has the same impact in Dutch...
  • That translation from English to Chinese-Trad, back to English, to Dutch, to French, to Portugese, to English, to Russian, back to English, to Greek, to French, to German, to English:

    The Helloh button honours the memory of 5 questions dlinniy the Minister the strangers of affairses: The nut/mother will be your attendance enevolencesschlaf in Israel, or at the bed your conflict brain will be Palestinian israeliano

    I'd definitely say there are bigger problems here.

  • by Half-pint HAL (718102) on Friday November 09, 2007 @03:18PM (#21299151)

    They translated it from Hebrew to English (not Dutch) -- hence the availability of quotes in English.

    The Reg also initially made the mistake of trusting their source unquestioningly and didn't think to check whether Babelfish actually had a Hebrew option (I'm surprised how few of you checked!), but to their credit, they've updated. Check it out [theregister.co.uk]... there's a new culprit in the frame, but I won't name names for fear of libel suits if it's not true.

    HAL.

  • They never quote the original text! I will grant you the translation is a little...choppy. But let's not blame Babelfish until we know it really did foul up. Maybe the reporters well spoken not were.
  • by writermike (57327) on Friday November 09, 2007 @03:20PM (#21299191)
    Before the journalists were led away by police, one of them could be heard yelling, "My nipples explode with delight!"
  • Just think of the magnitude of the incident that could have been sparked if Babelfish had translated the journalists' questions correctly.
  • Terms of service (Score:4, Interesting)

    by kryten_nl (863119) on Friday November 09, 2007 @03:48PM (#21299589)
    They should have read the Babelfish terms of service, they're probably liable now.

    6. MEMBER CONDUCT
    (...)
    You agree to not use the Service to:
    (...)
    o. translate any correspondence, of any kind, which could lead to diplomatic rows, a chilling of diplomatic relations, armed hostilities, and/or Global Thermal Nuclear War.
  • Where I accepted the translation from "All your base are belong to US" instead of "All your base are belong to us".
  • "all green of skin... 800 centuries ago.. their bodily fluids include the birth of half-breeds... for the fundamental truth is self-determination of the cosmos... for dark is the suede... that mows like a harvest..."

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