It would have made an eye-catching headline: GERMAN TOURISTS MAKE HOME IN CAR REPAIR SHOP. The aforesaid tourists, a couple from Munich, were happily touring the U.S. in their Italian motorhome and had gotten as far as Napa when they blew a clutch. (For those interested in automotive details, this was a Fiat Ducato, 2.5 turbo-diesel, 5 speed manual on the column. My take on the matter: about 402.) The tow truck driver, who remembered that Wine Country Motors fixes Fiats, towed them to Kelly's door. Unfortunately, a Fiat Ducato clutch is unavailable in this country and had to be shipped from Munich, so in the interim, Kelly gave them permission to hook up their electricity and water and camp out in the back parking lot of the shop.

So for a few days, Heinz and Margaret were buzzing around at Wine Country Motors. There was a bit of a language problem, since they didn't speak much English, and Kelly doesn't speak much German. Well, okay, it was a BIG language problem. . .but luckily, our computer guru, Eli, knew about an online translation service called Babelfish. You type your message, choose the language you want it translated into, and voila! international dialogue, right before your very eyes.

When Kelly told me about Babelfish, I was really excited. I work for the religious education department of a small Catholic parish, and in the past few years we've seen a significant increase in the number of families from Mexico and Central America. The children, typically, learn English in school, but their elders still speak Spanish primarily -- which presents a huge challenge to our two-person, English-speaking department. Cindy studied Spanish in high school but says that her present-day pronouncements are more along the lines of Caveman 101: "I at the church the meeting! You come now, yes?" And I'm no help, having taken four years of French at my East Coast high school. Sentences like La plume de ma tante est sur le bureau de mon oncle are of limited practical use even in the French-speaking community, much less in conversation with a new arrival from Jalisco.

We do have bilingual volunteers who are willing to translate letters for us. However, this tends to be a lengthy procedure: Write the letter in English. Give it to the translator and wait until he/she returns it. Type the Spanish translation. Duplicate and mail it. Works fine if we have plenty of time, but not if we need it right away.

So we were delighted to hear about Babelfish and marveled at its speed. Cindy did a sample English-to-Spanish translation and proudly showed the results to Father Aurelio, who speaks eight languages, and to Ofelia, who hails from the state of Chichuahua. They were too polite to laugh in her face, but amidst much coughing, they said that the translation was seriously flawed. Some of the words were not in common usage, and others were just plain wrong! Father Aurelio suggested a self-check: take the Spanish translation, plug it back into Babelfish, and translate it back into English. The results, fractured sentences like, In order to place Teresa in First Communion and program, it fills the form and signs please this, indicated that the translations were indeed less than perfect. Ah, well, we thought, if nothing else, we'd rate high on the amusement scale. Who needs television when you can have fun with pidgin Spanish?

I recently used Babelfish for personal business when I e-mailed anniversary greetings to our honorary Brazilian cousin, Marcelo, and his wife, Claudia. Since I don't speak Portuguese (samba and Ipanema do not constitute fluency), I hit on the bright idea of double-checking my message with an English-to-French translation, and whoa, baby, was that ever strange! Kelly's name was translated as tige carree d'entrainement, which, according to my handy-dandy Larousse dictionnaire, means square practice rod. Does this mean he's getting square in his old age? Or is it a commentary on his automotive background -- y'know, rod. . .piston? I finally gave up trying to understand that one, and sent the untouched message winging on its cyber-way.


A couple of days later I received a gracious reply from Marcelo, thanking me for the anniversary wishes. He added, "It was so funny, the portuguese e-mail you wrote," which led me to suspect that all was not well on the Babelfish front. Belatedly, I applied Aurelio's Law and found to my horror that this was the message I had sent:

Expensive Marcelo,

Kelly and I desire and to the Claude a very happy anniversario. E this portuges correct? I am using a servico of traducao in string. The times and good, and the times nao e! I used Babelfish to translate letters of English to the Spaniard, and the result was thus that malo that it made me the laugh. How this the life in Brasil?

The better desires,

Laverne, Its Cousin of California.

The moral of the story, folks, is "Enjoy playing with Babelfish, but don't rely on it for delicate international negotiations."


Well, comrades mine, all things good must end to come. I depart now, for reason that the Square Practice Rod et moi are to the outer eating place going. Feast we will, and imbibe, and view elderly munchkins and their rodents. It is risible, such. "Ha ha," spake I, "ha ha!"


                                                                    --Laverne Mau Dicker, 1999

Laverne Dicker can be reached at

Check out Babelfish at

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