Bewildered in Translation

A few days ago, I wanted to send an insulting email to my friend who has Portuguese as his first language. Now, it was an insult but I was sending it all in fun – he’s a cool dude who can take it and dish it right back. To make the slur sting a little more, I wanted to send it to him in his native language. I typed my insult into the BabelFish website (a language translation website that is free to use) and translated my scathing insult into Portuguese, copy-and-pasted and sent it to him in e-mail.

Five Minutes later, he replied asking, “What is a ‘sphere bag of light’?”

Thus began my odyssey of typing in phrases on BabelFish, translating them into other languages and then back into English to see what came out. It’s perplexing, funny and sometimes, what comes out is almost better than what went in, though it doesn’t mean the same thing anymore.

Baa Baa Black Sheep – translated from English to French to Chinese to English

“BAA Jack! Black sheep have you any wool? Yes married I have three bags full; one for my wife and my master did not live in one of the boys on the road!”

Alright. That is pretty disturbing. Just to be clear (because nothing about that translation is!), this started as:

“Baa! Baa! Black sheep, have you any wool?”
“Yes marry, have I three bags full;
one for my master,
and one for my dame
But none, for the little boy that lives down the lane!”

Let’s do another, shall we?

Little Bo Peeptranslated from English to French to Japanese to English

Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and not to know; Where tail brings all of them are only l come home and behind them.

Now, I do like how it removed the extraneous words: “Little Bo Peep, She has lost her sheep, And didn’t know where to find them” became simply, “Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and not to know.” That is a more succinct sentence with only a slight loss of clarity. The rest just goes nuts. Of course, this started out as:

Little Bo Peep,
She has lost her sheep,
And didn’t know where to find them;
Let them alone
They’ll all come home,
And bring their tails behind them.

Little Miss Muffettranslated from English to Spanish to Chinese to English


Little Miss Mafeite Sat on the mound to eat her fruit and serum; on wine a big spider, who sat next to her, scaring Muffet.

I hate when wined-up, big spiders interfere with my eating fruit and serum. This started out as:

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

So enough of the nursery rhymes, let’s try seeing what happens to really significant text, put through six different languages on BabelFish:

First paragraph (Preamble) of the Constitution of the United States of America – English to Spanish to Chinese to Dutch to Ukrainian to Italian to English

We the peoples of the United States, to create a more perfect, the creation of the League of Justice, to ensure that the quiet life of seven in the first place, to provide a common defense and general welfare of ourselves and our children, the benefits of freedom and the Constitution of the United States of America.

That could have been much worse and I almost didn’t use it, being such sacred text to so many. Still, it retained the essence of the original, skewed to be sure, but still holding a bit of the original meaning. For complete clarity (and if you went to school in America, you should know), this started out as:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

What did we learn from this exercise? We learn that:

1. People who have chosen the profession of Language Translator can be secure in the fact that computers will not replace them anytime soon.

2. BableFish can’t be really trusted. Not really.

3. The translations can be pretty funny.

Give it a try yourself. Oh, and the phrase that started this all was “Empty ball sack” translated as “Sphere bags of light.”

Now you know and knowing is half the battle. (G.I. Joe thumbs up.)

© 2011, Mitch Lavender


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