Thursday, November 8, 2007

Mistranslation causes diplomatic problem

Online translation engines, like Altavista's BabelFish translation service, are not only well-known for being free, but for sometimes coming up with very incorrect translations. For example, translating the phrase "Hello, how are you? I am well" from English to Japanese and back to English on BabelFish turns it into, "Is today vigorous? I am good." Close, but not close enough.

So it might not be the best to rely solely these engines when you're trying to communicate with someone important who speaks another language. Like, for example, the Dutch Foreign Minister.

A group of journalists in Israel found that out the hard way last weekend. According to The Register, the journalists used a translation engine called Babylon to translate an e-mail from Hebrew into Dutch. The e-mail was supposed to contain questions concerning an upcoming visit to the Netherlands for a seminar on Dutch politics. What came out of BabelFish, though, was very different.

According to the story, the e-mail began as follows: "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, and on relational Israel Holland." It then went on to make several more mentions of the minister's mother.The problem appears to have been caused because of a different spelling of the Hebrew word for "if", which is spelled identical to a word meaning "the mother" in Hebrew. The engine simply could not tell the difference between the two words.

Unfortunately, it's not all funny, as the Dutch Foreign Minister is now considering canceling the trip completely along with filing a complaint. The Israeli Foreign Ministry is also apparently embarrassed about this whole situation and is trying to patch up any relations with the Netherlands that may have been damaged by the incident.

As for the journalists? They are apparently too embarrassed to make the trip now.

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