Lost in Translation: The Guardian Makes Stuff Up

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Journalism 2.0: Just make stuff up

Few informed people still see the original ideal of fully automatic high-quality translation of arbitrary texts as a realistic goal for the foreseeable future. Many systems require texts to be preedited to put them in a form suitable for treatment by the system, and post-editing of the machine’s output is generally taken for granted.–Martin Kay, “Machine Translation: The Disappointing Past and Present

How Babel Fish almost caused a diplomatic incident: The gap between utopian expectations of a given technology and its actual performance is always good for a cheap laugh. File under “the rhetoric of the technological sublime: some costs of blind belief.”

The Guardian Unlimited, meanwhile, demonstrates a catastrophic, quacking “failure to commun’cate” of its own by reporting further nonexistent facts.

Then printing a correction that introduces even further nonexistent factoids relating to the current configuration of reality.

As Shoshannah Forbes, a contributor to the Risk Digest mailing list, points out, the story as the Guardian reports it is unlikely to be true: That Israeli journalists who miscommunicated with their Dutch hosts used the Babel Fish automated translation software to produce a comically garbled mesage, with disastrous results.

The Guardian claims that the journalists used the popular translation engine Babelfish, but this appears to be incorrect. Babelfish doesn’t handle Hebrew. Hebrew sources indicate that they may have used Babylon.

The Guardian itself knows all about creating diplomatic incidents by acts of gabbling miscommunication.

It recently ran an op-ed byline to Colombian political leader Carlos Gaviria that Mr. Gaviria did not write.

Imagine that you send in an op-ed under the byline of Henry Kissinger and get it published in The New York Times.


The Guardian:

So when indignant officials at the Dutch foreign ministry received an email from a group of Israeli journalists that began, “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,” they might perhaps have guessed what had happened.


Sadly, they did not. Nor did the follow-up questions (“Why we did not heard on mutual visits of main the states of Israel and Holland, this is in the country of this” and “What in your opinion needs to do opposite the awful the Iranian of Israel”) enlighten them. And now, according to the Jerusalem Post, the aforementioned journalists’ planned fact-finding trip to the Netherlands as guests of the Dutch government is in jeopardy. “How could this email possibly have been sent?” an anguished Israeli diplomat asked the paper. “These journalists have sparked a major, major incident.”

The story in question was “Journalists’ junket to the Netherlands gets lost in ; translation” [sic], by Sheera Claire Frenkel, November 6, 2007, page 1. Frenkel writes,

“How could this e-mail possibly have been sent? These journalists have sparked a major, major incident,” said an official from Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “Sure he can’t understand many of the questions, because the English is so bad. But he is being asked about the sleeping arrangements of his mother!”

The Post does not identify the automated on-line translation tool used.


The Guardian added that detail — and featured the factual error in the headline, to boot.

It also engages in “emotional ventriloquism,” attributing “anguish” to the diplomatic source cited by the Jerusalem Post, which simply reports his words without characterizing their emotional tenor.

The Foreign Ministry contacted the journalists who sent the e-mail and discovered that an automated on-line translation tool was at the root of the problem.

What is worse, the Guardian reporter claims to be reporting results from the Babel Fish online translation tool:

Blame Babel Fish, bud: it mistakes the Hebrew word for “if” (ha’im) for the Hebrew word for “mother” (ha’ima), and reckons “the Dome of the Rock” can reasonably be rendered in English as “bandages of the knitted domes”. So let that be a lesson to you. Or, as Babel Fish would have it in German, “Lassen Sie so einfach, daß eine Lektion zu Ihnen seien Sie.” Which apparently means: “Leave so simple that a lesson to you are you.” Amazing, the internet.

Babel Fish does not offer Hebrew translation.

At the foot of the story is the following correction:

This article was amended on Wednesday November 14 2007. The internet translation site used by the Israeli journalists mentioned above was babelfish.com, not babelfish.yahoo.com. This has been corrected.

Nothing has been corrected.

Babelfish.com is a cybersquatting site that does not offer online translation tools.

Babel Fish at Yahoo is simply a hosted version of the original Babel Fish tool from Altavista.

The Guardian takes a press report from the Jerusalem Post and adds incorrect information.

In a bid to correct that information, it introduces further errors.

Has the Guardian tested its employees for drugs lately? Basic literacy and reading comprehension?


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