back to article Babbling net software sparks international incident

A word of advice: Never use an online translation engine to communicate with the Dutch Foreign Minister. Last weekend, a group of Israeli journalists used a translation engine in sending an email message to the Dutch Consulate in Tel Aviv. They wanted to discuss an upcoming visit to The Netherlands for a seminar on Dutch …


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  1. yeah, right.


    Oh, that is so grass! Turtle me a new newspaper, thought journalist BabelFish fodder 鞄 yourself.

  2. Martin Gregorie

    Use of Babelfish

    "Never use Babel fish for anything." is a little fierce. I guess you really meant:

    "Never use Babelfish to translate your words into a language you don't speak."

    The fact that it was used that way for something so important speaks volumes about the mentality of the person doing it. Sentences containing the words "idiocy, arrogance and two thick planks" spring to mind.

    Babelfish is quite safe if you use it to translate *from* a language you can't read.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Check what?

    >>Never use Babel fish for anything.

    Disagree - hope that's tongue in cheek.

    Just like you shouldn't take Any information given to you on a plate as verbatim (hmm, wikipedia springs to mind) the mistake the journalists have made is to accept carte-blanche the translation given without further research or validation.

    I do use Babelfish quite frequently for German and French <> English translations. Although I do not class myself as fluent in the former two, I know enough about grammar, verbs, specific words, general structure and more importantly to arrive at a fairly decent translation. BUT, and its a big but (I said but, not butt, just so nobody thinks I'm trying to get the Paris angle in here!) I check and double-check the sentences that I arrive at.

    Even so, sometimes my incorrect prose has brought mirth and merriment to the recipient, although I haven't managed to spark an international incident (yet!).

    The very nature of an online translation is that is cannot distinguish context - in this case seemingly career-breaking!

  4. This post has been deleted by a moderator

  5. Guy Gregory

    Should have seen this coming...

    "Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers between communications, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in existence."

    - The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy (1978)

    How prophetic...

  6. Brett

    I hope they gave..

    .. many appologies for the incowenience.

    But how can journos spark an international incident? Someone was looking to get pissed off I think.

  7. Planeten Paultje


    These Dutch diplomats and politicians are devoid of humour. Nothing new there.

  8. James

    don't Israelis speak English already?

    I know a few Israelis. They all speak English well. As far as I'm concerned, English is the language of the world now.

  9. Anonymous Coward

    My hovercraft

    Is full of eels.

  10. bob timme

    ref: works of kilgore trout, pythons

    (tapdancing and farting) my hovercraft is full of eels.

    (brained with golf club)

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Babel Fish gets good results

    I know this because my son uses it for his French homework and gets good marks...

  12. James Condron

    @Guy Gregory

    Couldn't agree more, Douglas Adams must be spinning in his 42 (or 101010 as the conspiracy theory goes; indecision) graves.

    1979, though mate

  13. Anonymous Coward


    Babel fish doesn't support Hebrew...

  14. Morely Dotes

    @ Anonymous Coward

    Would you like to go to my room, bouncy bouncy?

    John Cleese is a god.

  15. Matthias

    Touchy bastard

    What is the Dutch Consulate thinking? Sparking an international incident? It was so blatantly a translation mistake it's unbelievable.

    Someone that gets offended even slightly by such an email is not someone I would choose to put in a position of diplomacy! This should have been laughed off, not made into "a major, major incident."

    If these are the kind of intolerant people in charge of international relations, then god help us all.

  16. Anonymous Coward

    Suitable for one purpose

    Well, put it simply, at least it has joking value. I used to share this piece of babelfish joke: whenever a chinese sentence contains the word "dry", it automatically becomes "f*ck" when spitted out from babelfish, because they happen to be the same word (though meaning is vastly different). So "dry beef" becomes "f*ck the cow meat" :-)

    If you're going to watch Olympics in Beijing, and you happen to be lucky when ordering meal, you might still see this hilarious stuff in restaurant menu :-)

  17. Shane Lusby


    If you want to kill a few minutes and a few braincells try googling 'multibabel'. There are several sites that will take any phrase, run it through the babel wringer a few times and eventually pop it back out in English again utterly mangled.

  18. Chris Peterson

    They could have at least "round tripped" the text to their native language.

    Maybe I should write a live Babelfish roundtripper, so you can massage your input text to improve the roundtrip output..

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hardly the province of machine translation only

    When Jimmy Carter visited Poland in the seventies his translator translated the President's admiration for the Polish nation to "I want to sleep with every Pole". Russian O Level is a loong time ago, but I recall "go for a walk" can be a little racy according to context :-)

  20. Fred W

    Can't always trust human translators, either

    I was maintaining equipment at a trade show in Moscow, 1974 iirc, and had to save one of our interpreters from getting slapped around. Seems that on his prior assignment, someone told him that "fockingstuff" meant "nice looking young woman."

  21. Daniel B.
    Thumb Up


    I remember once that babelfish used to translate "on" as in the context of "turn on" "switch on" ... but nothing else.

    So translating "The pen is on the table" to spanish would get "La pluma esta encendida la mesa" (The table is [turned on] the table) when it sould be "La pluma esta en la mesa".

    There's a fun page called "Lost in Translation" (no, not that fugly movie) that does roundtrips around a lot of languages, then back to english. You get really funny stuff in there, especially if the input doesn't make sense (try "all your base are belong to us", for example.) Still, they're the first in translations, AND they named it after Douglas Adams' work. 42! ;)

  22. Rebecca Putman

    No Universal Translator matrix yet.

    I took "" and translated it from English into German and got "Benutzen Sie nie Babel Fische für alles." Then I translated that from German into English and got, "Never use Babel of fish for everything."

    We still have a ways to go to get a Universal Translator, huh?

  23. Christian Berger

    Of course it seems childish to us

    Of course it seems childish to us to see an obviously badly translated document as an office, but keep in mind those are politicians.

    Those people may have never seen or used a computer in their lifetime. Even if they saw a picture of a computer before, they think that they are incapable of error.

    Those people get all of their "internets" printed out, or if they are older, handwritten as they might opose the printing press.

    The german minister of justice recently had to admit she didn't know what a browser was. And none of her collegues did.

    This is the german minister of interiour watching the wonders of the computer world:,property=poster.jpg

  24. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    More important

    The reaction of the diplomats is one thing, personally I find it understandable that they demand an explanation at the very least. An international incident may be a bit overboard though.

    On the other hand, what on Earth possessed the minds of the journos when they decided to use Bablefish to translate their prose ? Don't they have translators in Israel ? It seems to me that plain old horse sense has been seriously lacking here. If you have an official text to send in a language you do not know, it is obvious that you should get it checked by someone who DOES master that language, just to make sure that at least the glaring mistakes can be avoided.

    In that sense, I perfectly agree with the Dutch guys receiving this load of tripe. It demonstrates a blatant disregard for anything resembling simply courtesy. it is an insult in itself.

  25. TeeCee Gold badge
    Paris Hilton

    Correct translation can also cause problems.

    A friend of mine in Prague wanted to nip outside the office for a cigarette. Being a thoughtful soul he thought he'd invite a female colleague and smoker along and being a sort of internationally minded chap, he rendered the invitation in perfect Czech for her benefit. To compound his error he then extended the invitation to another female colleague while the first was still doing goldfish impressions and trying to work out what to say.

    Czech colloquialism: "Fancy a smoke?" approximates to: "Excuse me young lady, would you be so kind as to suck my dick?"..........

  26. anarchic-teapot

    I'd be offended too

    If some idiot couldn't be arsed to slip a professional translator a few quid to make sure their questions were properly phrased.

    In fact idiots like this thinking they could do my job is one of the main reasons I stopped being a professional translator. The crowning glory was finding a creep was going over my translation behind my back and turning it into gibberish - he didn't speak a word of English. Needless to say, it was a public text essential to the company I was doing it for.

  27. Ole Juul

    fish poetry

    Tell the fish to translate German into English ... when the orginal is already in English. It's great fun!

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Anon coward - french homework

    Of course he gets good marks - there's a slight difference between translating "I am called Steve and I have a dog" and the complexities of a diplomatic/political correspondence.

    I do agree they were stupid to use babel fish - why not just wait til the english speaking guy was available?

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The old men are they he better thing (the old ones are the best)

    "Out of sight, out of mind" -> russian -> english = "invisible idiot"

    Multibabel looks as though it has solved the problem of writing manuals for consumer electronics - just use the include chinese etc option and out it comes!

  30. Sam

    And finally

    Drop your panties, Sir William, I cannot wait until lunchtime.

    The Drizabone thanks, it looks like it's going to piss down.

  31. Robert Ramsay

    More applicable DNA...

    "A dreadful silence fell across the conference table as the commander of the Dutch, resplendent in his black jewelled battle shorts, gazed levelly at the Israeli journalist leader squatting opposite him in a cloud of green sweet-smelling steam, and, with a million sleek and horribly beweaponed star cruisers poised to unleash electric death at his single word of command, challenged the creature to take back what it had said about his mother."

  32. Nano nano

    In mediaeval Europe ...

    ... that's why people spoke Latin.

    But seriously, there should surely be a more sophisticated version of Babel which lets you specify the required meaning more accurately e.g. - if [condition] during [time of] visit we [plural 1st person] ... etc. and notifies you if there are any potential clashes of meaning. It could even render it back into your native language for cross-checking ...

  33. Anonymous Coward

    babelfisch rockz!

    I use it frequently, I mean, it does a pretty good job on single words ... I speak four languages fluently, but I tend to remember a word in the other three languages and not in the one I need it ... so I use babelfish ....

    The worst thing that happened to me was when I wrote a customer cc my boss "I pissed the file onto the server" .... in Dutch ... lol geplast vs geplaatst .... I typed geplaast into <Dutch>Foutlook</Dutch> (which I cannot blame this time ...) and it corrected it to geplast iso geplaatst .... It didn't even offer geplaatst, which would have saved me ... almost cost me the job, as it was on my first day .... lol

    Sorry, I have to post anonymously .... you understand why ;-)

  34. Hans-Peter Lackner
    Paris Hilton

    Babelfish is very good for french poems

    I used Babelfish sometimes to translate from French to German and everything I translated sounded like a very romantic poem to me (even if it was only the guide for my dishwasher)

  35. Chizo Ejindu

    Mutilbabel madness

    So i thought i'd try a nice straightforward phrase to wash through multibabel, something that couldn't really go wrong:

    "Would you please take care of my mother, she has a bad back."

    Translated thus: English > French > English > German > English > Italian > English > Portuguese > English > Spanish > English its came back with the following:

    "They caused that it requested the excessive mine to but/mother, he a later face of this one defective one to preoccuparsi."

    I'm detecting a slight change in my original text... :P

  36. Chris Hawkins

    Love the Lost in Translation Page

    Tried the following phrase in that site:

    Dick Cheney's shotgun


    Injector of the frequent hunting of Cheney

    Translated that phrase which gave:

    The injector of the attempts considers of Cheney

    which gave:

    The injector of the cares of proven you of Cheney

    which gave:

    The injector of the Obacht of explosion one of you of Cheney

    which gave:

    The injector of Obacht of bud one of you of Cheney

  37. Colonel Panic

    Questions in advance ?

    I'm hoping this was not accidental... if a player asks for a list questions in advance, any self-respecting journo should answer back with something about the his mother.

  38. Andy Taylor

    The Hitchhiiker's Guide to the Galaxy


    Was first broadcast on Radio 4 in 1978. The book of the same name was first published in 1979


  39. CJ

    International incident

    Well, must be quite an international incident.

    Here in Holland it's not on the news yet...

  40. Dam
    Thumb Down

    Dutch minister: you fail

    Formal complaint ?

    Major incident ?

    Come on, this minister bloke needs to snap out of it, who does he fucking thinks he is ?

    These people could as well have sent their text in hebrew and let a local translator do the job.

    Major incident my ass, you morronic dutch minister.

    PS: did I sparkle a major major major incident ?

    I live in France, and we don't surrender, we're becoming friends with the US again, they'll defend us.

  41. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Firstest with the mostest

    What did the Israeli journalists hope to learn about the Israel/Palestine conflict from the Dutch government? Does the Dutch government keep French-speaking Netherlanders hemmed into a small area, which they periodically bombard with artillery shells? And if they did so, would the government admit this to a bunch of journalists?

    I choose Paris Hilton as my avatar, because she is used to having wriggly things put into her ears.

  42. Anonymous Coward

    Well spotted! (re Bollocks!)

    "Babel fish doesn't support Hebrew..."

    What is it the Reg always says about lazy journos not checking sources?

  43. Anonymous Coward

    It is true

    I went to and looked. No option for Hebrew. These journalists are telling porkies.

    Which is a shame, I wanted to make a joke about building golems with babelfish.

  44. Danny

    Is This

    How amanfrommars translates his posts before submitting them?

  45. Christopher Rogers
    Thumb Up


    You would have thought they would have checked their questions before sending, or at least informing the Dutch minister that they cannot get the language correct and could he provide someone.....egg on faces.

    In another language based moment of hilarity, I was looking to learn some Welsh as i was heading over with my GF (she's from north Wales, I'm in NI). The only phrase i managed to get was "my hovercraft is full of eels" as seen above.

    I laughed. I'd imagine others would too.*

    Please note the tongue in cheek nature of this comment. some people on elReg comments pages seem to have humour bypasses.

  46. Simon Kirby
    Paris Hilton

    Multibabel does Paris....

    Where of the angle of Paris I gave Hilton?

  47. spiny norman


    Sometimes you have to complain till you're blue in the mouth - Babel Fish doesn't support Hebrew. So either this story is using BF as a generic term for web translation or it is complete balls. does support Hebrew. Running the quoted passage into Hebrew and back into English delivers "Bud of the those, enclosed five from the questions in honor of the foreign minister : The mother of your visit in Israel is a sleep to the favor or to the bed of your brain on the conflict is Palestinian Israeli, and on Israel relatively Holland". Which is a lot better, obviously.

  48. Julian

    Babel Dating

    I still want to find out about the sleeping arrangements of his mother though. Just goes to show that, even at her (presumably) advanced age, those Dutch girls aren't afraid to put it about a bit!

  49. Chris Fryer
    Black Helicopters

    Re: Of course it seems childish to us

    I presume the Minister of the Interior is the one on the right :-)

    A picture paints a thousand words, eh? Can you imagine an Arab working for the Home Office, or the Department of Homeland Security? Maybe if they were chained up in a bathtub, listening to Jihadist chatter à la Minority Report...

  50. Steve B


    If these journos couldn't speak English or Dutch then why were they going in the first place?

    Speaking English of English, how come I speak English but English is never on the list of nationalities on (English) online forms? England is never on the list of countries either, not even on our government forms, which is probably how the Scots crept in and took over.

    Is it to appease the other nations of the world who do not have their own language?

    Why isn't there a subscribe button to stories and comments? Some of us don't have time to read everything or keep revisiting.

  51. Big_Boomer

    Stupid, stupid and Where?

    The Dutch (so-called) Diplomats are stupid for taking offence at what was obviously a translation error. Stomme idioten.

    The Israeli (so-called) Journalists are stupid for not checking what they translated. No wonder they have so many problems with international relations. כסילים טיפשים

    Where can ya use Babelfish to translate to/from Hebrew?

    I can't find it.

    There are several other sites out there that do Hebrew but not Babelfish.

    If I were Systrans I'd be speaking to my lawyers right about now. <LOL>

  52. Andy Hockey
    Thumb Up

    Using the page suggested by Daniel B...

    "Babel Fish" translates to "Fish of the Confusion"

  53. Duncan Hothersall
    Dead Vulture

    As someone has already pointed out...

    ...Babelfish doesn't even support Hebrew. So whatever possible variety of bollocks this story is, it neither fair nor accurate. And I for one bemoan the complete lack of a Paris Hilton angle in the article too.

    Buck up your ideas, El Reg!

  54. Svein Skogen

    Maybe this explains

    the lack of sense "AManFromMars"'es posts make...


  55. Michael
    Thumb Up


    Thank you, thank you - a thousand thank yous - that story just made my day. Absolutely brilliant! ROTFLMFAOPMP

  56. Karl Lattimer

    babel loop

    Its superficial lower whole number is belongs to us

  57. Paul A. Walker

    I will not buy this record...

    ... it is scratched.

  58. Rik Silver badge

    @Robert Ramsay

    "challenged the creature to take back what it had said about his mother."

    "Do you stand by the assertion that she is a member of the Mesocricetus Auratus family, and that her spouse disperses the fragrance of Sambucus Nigra?"

  59. Paul R

    Rise of the Machines?

    This obviously needs to be filed under ROTM. It's a blatant attempt by Babel Fish to spark off an international incident, thus causing us to all nuke ourselves into oblivion, and allow the machine intelligence to take over unimpeded.

  60. Misha Gale

    re: Babel Fish gets good results

    @Anon: Is your son by any chance in an English school? Because as I understand it, throwing your inkwell at the exam paper gets you a C in French Language GCSE.

  61. Alexander Holland


    Has babelfish every been able to translate hebrew?

    It's certainly not an option now, was it removed, or is this story just "made up"?

  62. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Even more worrying...

    ...that when a group of Hebrew speaking Israelis need to communicate with a group of dutch speaking dutchmen choose to translate into english at all?

    >whenever a chinese sentence contains the word "dry", it automatically

    >becomes "f*ck" when spitted out from babelfish, because they happen

    >to be the same word

    Now there's a dilemna which is the worse mistake? To "fuck the cow meat" or to "dry the prostitute".

  63. Anonymous Coward


    So big that none of the Dutch newspapers mentioned it, and I didn't know about this until I read it here. Thanks El Reg for keeping me posted on the imminent war between my country and a nuclear power, bypassing the conspiring bastards who try to keep us in the dark...

  64. piet heyn


    That is why I use the Twikilate translation engine. At least it knows that whether is האם in Hebrew. The other way around it translate האם as shinken (meat).

  65. Marcus Vowell

    Jag offs

    I'm sure they've gotten better since, but I remember discussing the universal translator problems back in college, and at the time the best one they (whoever they are) had translated "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" in to Russian and then back into English. The result was "The vodka is good, but the meat is bad."

    That being said, these Dutch guys are arseholes to get all riled up over what is obviously just a poor translation.

  66. Zac Jackson

    Babelfish brilliance

    I won't hear a word said against babelfish! Working over here in China it's an essential tool. I'd be lost without being able to understand my e-mails from Shiny Happy Jade like Budda delegating responsibility in his absence to steam riding urinating sheeps all...

  67. Danny

    babelfish works quite well

    i've had many a conversation with a person who's language i didn't speak with the help from Babelfish. just be sure to use complete words and carefully check the grammar and you'll be just fine (try and translate "you'll" to Dutch, it wont give you a proper respone. "You will" however, will translate just fine).

    there's several alternatives nowadays though, most perform much better (can't seem to remember which ones though).

  68. Biton Walstra

    journalist not speaking english...

    What kind of journalist are you when you cannot speak / write a word of english?

    I fully understand my Dutch Consulate to refuse those people to come to the Netherlands...

  69. Anonymous John

    What did they wait?

    Babelfish is known for the mutilating test.

    I will get my low.

  70. Jeremy
    Thumb Up

    Re: Bollocks!

    Anonymous Coward has a good point! Methinks the little yellow ear-fish has been unfairly fingered here...

  71. Risky
    Thumb Up


    I've roundtripped some particularly garbled forums posts before. Sometimes the come out better and actualy gain some grammar!

  72. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Re: fish poetry

    Finally, some mentions (albeit tongue in cheek, and don't you dare type *that* into BF...) an obvious precaution. After asking BF to translate *into* the language you don't speak, ask it to translate its results back into the original. Most mis-translations are not reversed on the way back. Frankly I'm surprised that BF don't recommend this prominently on their site.

  73. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Re: fish poetry

    Oh, and I suppose the other "safe" solution is to send your post in your own language with a link to BF at the top. Let the recipient run the text through and they'll be more forgiving of the output. This presumes a certain level of goodwill on the part of the recipient, but that ought to be true for embassy staff, at least unless you've been spamming them about their mother's sleeping arrangements.

  74. Spam Me

    is supposed to eventually do something similar, albeit for shopping (not language)

  75. Dunhill
    Black Helicopters

    Babelonisch ??

    HOW, if those journalists, who have no idea about other languages, wants to communicate with officials, when they are in holland ....

    Oh a laptop with hebrewfish on it maybe .....

  76. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The explanation: babylon, not babelfish


    Hence how come it does do hebrew after all. Simple tech-ignorant-journo-transcription error.

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