THE VIETNAMESE BABEL FISH
I always drew amusement from the name of the first widely-used online translation service: ‘Babelfish’ – which came well before the advent of Google Translate. The name ‘Babel’ has biblical origins. According to the book of Genesis in the bible, all humanity spoke one language once. But when they began to build a tower to reach heaven from earth, God felt insulted and so the big maker decided to teach them a lesson. He “confounded their speech”, thus hindering their ability to communicate with each other and finish what would become known as ‘The Tower of Babel’. Incidentally, the word ‘Babel’ is a Hebrew derivation of the word ‘jumble’.
The Babel Fish however, is a fictional creature in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. According to the Guide, it is “the oddest thing in the universe”, yet proves very useful, as when worn in the ear it – fuelled by the individual’s brainpower – excretes a format that enables that individual to understand any language, anywhere. The source of my amusement with Babelfish – the internet’s first answer to translation – was that it was nothing like the effective instant translator described in the Guide. In fact, if anything, when you typed a sentence into Babelfish a decade or so ago the muddled message you got back was of no help at all – like the original meaning of ‘Babel’ it would confuse the recipient even more.
So what’s the connection between me just Babel-ing on and this article? Simply phrased, things get lost in translation. Particularly when they are not put into proper context and we allow computers to translate for us. While there have always been amusing anecdotes of Engrish (embraced further in an entire website of the same name dedicated to exampling the most poorly executed spelling and grammatical sentences in Asia), the use of services such as Babelfish or Google Translate have undoubtedly served to cut out the human translator even more.
The consequences of this are seen often, especially in brochure material here where English text has simply been put into an automated internet translator and printed up accordingly. Or course us Anglos are no strangers to saying amusing things – we can’t get our tongues properly around Tieng Viet and when we try, the results often send our local counterparts into fits of giggles. I remember a tour guide friend of mine explaining how funny it was when tourists – particularly Australians – would see all the colourful tropical fruits at the local market and exclaim “yum” with lots of gusto. Apparently “yum” in native Hoi An slang can mean horny. So there you go.
Vietglish Examples From Local Brochures
- The deeper one penetrates the more magical you feel after boat 700m, a large dry passage is appear…(Phong Nga caves)
- On the island there are precious birds nests under the water the beaches are very nice with transparent sand.
- Depart for Bana mountain where you can feel your interests with a lot of pretty villas, newly built hotels and bungalows.
- Have a chance to ride on a cable car helps you get a very miraculous and attractive wigile enjoying a feeling of flying in the blue sky and wind.
- Enjoy the fresh air while the fogs go around you.
- 6 km bike ride – Cycling tours are for amateur cyclists with normal local bikes and without amenities for professional cyclists. There is no car or van back up during cycling.
- It’s our pleasure to sever you. Inclusions – water and a wet tissue
- The interaction with the kids is satisflying enough.
- After our excitement so far we have worked up a hungry!
- After freshening up with full tummies watch the farmers floating their ducks.
- Our Chinese chef will make you completely satisfied.
- Take a look at the fighting cocks then ho back to Hanoi.
- Enjoy a coffee tea or toilet.
The Babel Fish in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is used in an argument (with God) about his existence.
The argument goes like this:
I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’
`But,’ says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’
`Oh dear,’ says God, `I hadn’t thought of that,’and promptly disappears in a puff of logic.
`Oh, that was easy,’ says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.
Originally published in Live Hoi An magazine, Amy Morison
Revised and updated February 2019