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The Debabelizing of the Internet
by Karl-Erik Tallmo

The Internet is not as globally encompassing as we usually like to think. Most people - especially in the Third World - do not have access to the Net. Allegedly, two thirds of the world's population has never even made a telephone call.

Then there is this problem of language. As soon as one transcends anglophile areas, one is rather lost, unless fairly skilled in a few other languages.

But great things happen in small steps. Such a step was taken recently when the search site at Alta Vista launched their translation service. Together with Systran Technologies they now offer free translations from English into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French, and German - and vice versa. The URL is

The technology for automatic translation is, of course, still very primitive, resulting in frequent misconceptions and strange wordings, yet it is good enough to at least give the reader a hint about a text, that would otherwise be virtually impenetrable.

If we, for instance, try it out with professor Higgins' notorious cockney indicator ”The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”, the outcome tells us that in the area in question people would probably say ”La lluvia en España permanece principalmente en el llano”. In Italy one would, according to Systran, word it as ”La pioggia in Spagna rimane pricipalmente nel normale.”

Well, homonyms pose difficulties even for translators of flesh and blood. And German accuracy, in this slightly blurred cybernetic version, is of no help: ”Der Regen in Spanien bleibt hauptsächlich in dem normalen”. And a Frenchman, keen on studying the meteorology of his neighbouring country, might not get much wiser by reading this somewhat melancholy assertion: ”La pluie en Espagne reste principalement dans l'ordinaire”.

What then might our philological oracle make of the linguistic embellishments of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake? Let's try with the very first sentence of the book, which, when it comes right down to it, is not terribly polyglot:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

A French version, according to Systran:

le riverrun, après la veille et Adam's, d'écart de rivage à la courbure du compartiment, nous apporte par un vicus de commodius du recyclage de nouveau au château et aux environs de Howth.

And from there back into English:

the riverrun, after the day before and Adam's, of variation shore to the curve of the compartment, brings to us again by a vicus of commodius of recycling to the castle and around Howth.

And then, directly into German:

das riverrun, nach dem Tag vor und dem Adam's, des Varianteufers zur Kurve des Faches, holt uns wieder durch ein vicus von commodius der Wiederverwertung zum Schloß und um Howth.

And back to English once more:

riverrun, after the day before and to the Adam's, the version bank for the curve of the drawer, gets us again by vicus from commodius the recycling to the lock and around Howth.

Of course, it is easy to make fun of all the errors that occur in automatic translation. Still, one must say that this is a step on the way towards something bigger.

In just a few years we will probably use many different tools for reading. In the same way that we today choose our favorite word processing program, we will one day be able to choose between different kinds of reading tools, which will not only do translations, but also create abstracts, full argumentative analyses of texts etc. Little by little these tools will adapt to us, and we may even be able to exchange tools with one another, thus enabling us to read a text through someone else's eyes, so to speak - sort of like reading a book with someone else's underlinings, but much more fully developed and in our control.

The translator at Alta Vista can also be loaded with a URL. Then the Web page in question is filtered through the translator and - voilá (voilá, voilá, voilá, voilá) - it is presented in a new language, with all of the links intact, only the first 300 words or so but still ... Today you can also buy plug-ins that directly translate your electronic correspondence. One of them is the EasyTranslator. TFS Gateway is another, a Swedish brand.

Maybe this could be the beginning of the end to the Babylonic confusion of tongues, that is at times all too conspicuous in such an allegedly global medium as the Internet. But what does the flip side of the coin look like?

Will people stop learning foreign languages, just as pocket calculators almost put en end to the noble art of mental arithmetic? I don't think so. On the contrary, I believe that many people will be stimulated to learn more about the languages they in this way suddenly get unexpected glimpses of. Compare the prevalence of knowledge of English in countries where movies and TV are dubbed as opposed to those where they are subtitled!

But what will happen to concepts like copyright and the definition of what constitutes a work of originality?

Perhaps all of this will constitute infringements on the moral dimension of copyright, when one person's work is suddenly given a new linguistic shape. Who then is responsible for the translation? Is it the person who has ordered the computer program to translate? Or is it the company, who, by offering these functions, performs a kind of bulk translation service, the rights for which ought to have been cleared? Or could all this be labelled as some kind of reproduction for one's own, fair use?

We might be watching the start of a trend, where the reader, with the help of various text processing tools, will increasingly become the co-author of the text he or she is reading. Publishers, editors and librarians are presently having to regroup their positions in this new cybernetic landscape. Maybe the time has come for the author and the reader to rethink their roles as well.

Note: After this article was written, the people at Systran have obviously improved the program, adding new words and meanings. The sentence above about Spanish rain is now translated as:

La lluvia en España permanece principalmente en el llano.
La pioggia in Spagna rimane pricipalmente nella pianura.
Der Regen in Spanien bleibt hauptsächlich in der Ebene.
La pluie en Espagne reste principalement dans la plaine.

We use the service free of charge, but all of us users are probably part of the developing team ... /KET

This article is © copyright Karl-Erik Tallmo 1998.
Manually translated from Swedish original into English by Henrik Nordström.
Computer translations, made from the English version by the Alta Vista/Systran translator, are available in ”German”, ”Spanish”, ”Italian” and ”French”.
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