Hear better with a babel fish in your ear

Future Tense for Oct. 01, 2007

By Steve Welker

Mount Airy Planning Director Jeff Coutu told me about a project in France where scientists used geo-magnetic imaging to find archeological sites.

Geo-magnetic imaging is somewhat like combining a metal detector with a computer to build up images of what's underground. In geo-magnetic imaging, however, an airplane tows a magnetometer over a large area to create survey maps -- something that might be useful here in Surry County where we have a number of historic sites such as Rockford.

But this column is not about geo-magnetic imaging. I'll save that for another day.

Jeff Coutu knew about the project in France because his daughter, Ashley, spent a month on the ground, in the mud, actually excavating the archeological sites. She sent Jeff a French newspaper story about the project. Unfortunately, Jeff didn’t take French in school and couldn’t read the newspaper.

I didn’t learn French, either, but I could translate the article for him thanks to Babelfish, an Internet service that I usually tap at www.Altavista.com.

The name "babel fish" originally appeared in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the late Douglas Noel Adams’ science-fiction “trilogy” (published in five sections; DNA had a poor sense of arithmetic).

The babel fish could be placed in people’s ears to instantly translate any words they heard into brainwaves they could understand. It neatly solved the problem of how Arthur Dent could understand aliens and explains why Adams’ fans adorn sites dedicated to H2G2 with yellow fish.

Most people recognize the word “Babel” from the Bible’s explanation for the world’s many and varied languages. The story in Genesis 11 may be based on King Nebuchadnezzar’s brick ziggurat in Babylon.

You can read Genesis 11, a story told orally in various Mideastern languages and dialects before being written down in Hebrew, because of one of the world’s great translators. He had a mellifluous name, Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus, but modern writers refer to him as St. Jerome. He was born in what is now Yugoslavia, educated in Rome, lived for some time in Constantinople and traveled through much of the Mideast. He had a wonderful gift for languages. At the request of Pope Damasas I, Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) into Latin. It took 20 years, but Jerome lived to be 80 (he died in 420 A.D.), probably because few people bothered him in the apartment where he kept the grateful lion from whose paw Jerome had removed a thorn. St. Jerome’s Vulgate Bible remains the Roman Catholic Church’s official Latin version of the Bible and provided the text for Gutenberg’s first printed Bible.

John Wyclif completed the first English-language version of the Bible in 1380. He translated Jerome’s Latin version into a Midland dialect similar to the language of Chaucer.

The Bible has been translated into 1,500 languages and dialects. Many of those old translators’ tricks of the trade are incorporated in modern, computerized translation systems.

After World War II, researchers became interested in applying computers’ number-crunching power to automatic language translation. It seemed simple to read and compute the mathematical value of the word “blau” in German and to find the equivalent corresponding word, “blue,” in English. Soon, 48 groups were working on the problem. What stumped them were problems of context and idiom. The English phrase, “I’m feeling blue,” could mean I am sad, I went skinny dipping in the Yadkin RIver in winter or I am touching a circle in Twister.

In 1966, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences said the problems of translation could never be solved. The bureaucrats were wrong.

In 1969, former MIT professor Peter Loma demonstrated his computer-based, Russian-to-English translation system, called SYSTRAN. U.S. and Soviet astronauts and controllers successfully used it for the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1974.

Only corporations and governments could afford Systran at first, but prices came down.

BabelFish, the world’s first on-line translation service (powered by SYSTRAN), went on the Internet at the Alta Vista search site in 1997. That’s when I first learned to use it.

SYSTRAN now can handle 38 language pairs. It and other computer-based translation software has been incorporated into cell-phone services, automatic Web-page translation, electronic games and talking cars.

To translate the newspaper article from Ashley Coutu, I typed the story into Google’s “Language Tools,” copied and pasted the paragraphs into a Microsoft Word document and cleaned up the grammar. It took an hour.

What’s surprising is how well the modern translation software operates. I tried some translations in German (a language I can read, though poorly) and the software either picked up or supplied the appropriate idioms.

When I wrote, “I feel blue from the cold,” Google Language Tools returned the German phrase, “Ich fühle von der Kälte blau,” which means, “I feel blue from cold weather.” However, it didn’t realize that I could have meant I feel depressed, which in German translates to “niedergedrückt.” And when I asked it to translate, “My skin turned blue from the cold,” Google came back with the incomprehensible, “Meine Haut blau gedreht von der Kälte,” which means, “My skin blue turned of cold weather.”

Even despite some problems, I've seen huge improvements in translation software over the past 10 years. I won’t be surprised to find a babelfish in my ear ... in the future.



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