Friday, April 14, 2006

Warum Babelfish Saugt

Years ago, I worked with a German guy who really took me under his wing when he found out I had taken three years of German in high school. Actually, I took one year of real German and then took two years independent study where I would goof off for an hour a day in the library and then occassionally cram for a test. I had the very sweet old German lady that taught the class completely snowed. Naturally my German was pretty week. Twenty-five years of neglect haven't done it much good either.

When my German coworker quit, he gave me as a momento the November 1993 issue of German Playboy featuring Mimi Rogers (the first Mrs. Tom Cruise, in case you don't remember). This of course makes the "I read it for articles" excuse completely implausible. The good thing is that since the format of German Playboy is identical to the American version, you can pick up a lot through context. I would try to read the Playboy Advisor, but I think some of the more technical terms that might appear in Playboy would not be in the vocabulary lists from my high school texts.

Laughter is the universal language, so the Party Jokes page should be a little more accessible. Here is one of the ones I was able to decipher:

“Hören Sie mal, junger Mann, warum bringen Sie meine Tochter erst um fünf Uhr früh nach Hause?”
“Dumme Frage! Weil ich um sechs zur Arbeit muss.”

I loosely translated the joke to this:

“Listen up, young man, why are you bringing my daughter home at five in the morning?”
“What a stupid question! Because I have to go to work at six.”

I didn't say it was a good joke. Most jokes in Playboy aren't. To test my translation abilities, I went and typed the joke into Babelfish to see if I got the gist of it and I got this gibberish.

"hearing it times, young man, why you bring my daughter only at five to o'clock early home?"
"stupid question! Because I around six to the work must."

I would never recognize that as complete sentences let alone a fairly unfunny lame joke. Bablefish translates the sentences word for word, not even trying to adjust the grammar, let alone shift the prepositions or idioms to something a real English speaker would say. I pity anyone relying on Babelfish to do anything other than look up the harder words.

At least I know enough German to know how dreadful the translation is. Maybe my three years of high school German weren't completely wasted.


TBG said...

If you put it back into Babelfish, translate it back to German and THEN re-translate it into English again, you get this:

", times, young man hearing it, why you get my daughter only with five to the early house clock?" "stupid question! Because I around six to the work must."

TBG said...

Also.. I just spent the afternoon watching a friend's son at the AAU basketball tournament at Georgetown Univ. Boy, am I glad I'm a drama geek's mom and not an athlete's. I don't remember any drama or band event smelling that bad!


Mooselet said...

I spent 2 1/2 years living in a small German hamlet outside a US Air Base. I understood German much better than I ever spoke it, but only if the speaker spoke slowly. Our landlady was a lovely old German woman who spoke NO English; fortunately her son lived across the hall and her nephews next door, so translation help was always available.

The oddest moment was when our heater died, and she had what I think were a couple of family members bring up a new one. One of the men was wearing an army uniform and they were teasing him about it. Someone did a quick Nazi salute with the "Heil Hitler" and they burst out laughing. Freaky. I'd love to know what exactly they said. I think...

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

If your 3 years of high school German allows you to translate German Playboy jokes, then your time was very well spent my friend!

Impetua said...

Can I just point out that Mimi is looking quite fetching on that cover?

Hey, I'm married, not dead...

Bonvallet said...

I love the German language. Took only one year so now I know a little more than Kennedy's famous, "Ich bin Eine Berliner" Not much more but a little more.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info on the translator. I always wondered how that worked. We have a lot of Spanish speaking workers in my company. The girl that translates claims to be an expert. She is Cuban and does speak the language well, but I always catch her doing our memos with that translator you mention. I'll have to warn her. She may not like it, but I can't let it go.

yellojkt said...


Google has their own translation engine and this is what it came up with:

"Listen to the times, young man, why bring my daughter is only five-clock home early?"
"Stupid question! Because I work at six. "

I'm not sure that's much better than Babelfish.

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