How Babel Fish Got Lost In Translation: A History Lesson

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Brenda Barron
Brenda is a freelance writer, business owner, and WordPress enthusiast. She lives in California with her husband and two children.

Learn how the original Babel Fish translator came about.

Last Updated on August 5, 2020

Babel Fish was an online language translator. It was an easy-to-use way to get a quick translation of a word or phrase on the fly.

The Babel Fish platform was the predecessor to Google Translate. But Google Translate took a large majority of the Babel Fish users and expanded into the influential translation tool it is today, eventually causing Babel Fish to disappear entirely.

After getting its start in 1997, Babel Fish was originally called the AltaVista Translation Service (or Systran), under the URL babelfish.altavista.com:

 

Systran screenshot
Systran, the precursor to Babelfish, in 1999

 

So why did AltaVista pick Babel Fish for its URL? Douglas Adams wrote a book called the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which featured a species of fish that could translate for humans. Therefore, the Babel Fish website took this name as a reference to this science fiction classic.

 

Babelfish screenshot
The Babel Fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Jonathan Davies. CC BY 2.0

 

The original Babel Fish website is not functional anymore, but it sends you directly to the Yahoo homepage. (A currently operating site under the domain name BabelFish.com has no relation to the AltaVista Babel Fish service, but it does offer translation tools for free.)

How Babel Fish Eventually Went Extinct

Although the Babel Fish website was a rather revolutionary development, it was plagued by near constant acquisitions. Therefore, it never seemed to gain footing with one organization, and instead, left itself open for Google to make and improve a similar program under one roof.

For example, the Babel Fish system was launched in 1997, but in 2003 a company called Overture Services, Inc. bought Babel Fish. Then Overture Services company was taken over by Yahoo later that same year.

 

Altavista Babelfish in 2003

 

In 2008, the babelfish.altavista.com domain name changed to babelfish.yahoo.com. This was the start of Babel Fish lacking an identity. Not only did the website jump around from owner to owner, but the new owners seemed to always try to rebrand and change the name.

Microsoft’s Bing Translator was eventually released, so this website replaced Yahoo Babel Fish. Although the domain name didn’t completely change this time, the babelfish.yahoo.com URL was redirected to www.microsofttranslator.com. Microsoft eventually acquired the translation module.

It’s been debated whether or not any of the same technology was used in the eventual Bing Translator, but it’s entirely possible that Microsoft simply wanted to remove the competition from the market.

Where Do All of These URLs Lead To Today?

Over the years, we’ve seen the platform under the following domain names or redirects. We can also see which websites the domains currently lead to:

  • babelfish.altavista.com forwards you to the Yahoo homepage.
  • babelfish.yahoo.com forwards you to the Yahoo homepage.
  • microsofttranslator.com forwards you to the Microsoft Bing Translator.

Archive.org shows us that the redirect to Yahoo was put in place around May 2009:

 

Babelfish redirect

What Was the Original Babel Fish Like?

During its heyday, Babel Fish was a completely free website, so the average user could open up their browser, select two translation languages and type in a phrase or word. The tool would then deliver the translation to the best of its ability.

Both web pages and text could be translated through Babel Fish. So if you wanted to paste in a bit of text you could do so. It also completed compatible translations if a user pasted in a webpage URL (kind of like a precursor to the webpage translations we see with browsers today). It didn’t have any functionality for translating when a user landed on a webpage, so you would have to copy the URL, then paste it into Babel Fish in order to see the result.

Babel Fish supported translations between 36 language pairs. The total language count only consisted of 13 languages. Some of the translations included:

  • Chinese to English
  • English to Dutch
  • English to Italian
  • English to Russian
  • French to English
  • German to French
  • Greek to French
  • Italian to English
  • Japanese to English
  • Korean to English
  • Portuguese to French
  • Russian to English
  • Spanish to English

The vast majority of the translations either translated to or from English, making it rather limited compared to the power that’s currently provided through Google Translate.

For instance, Google Translate currently supports just over 100 languages, with about a dozen in development. Some of these languages include more obscure options like Zulu, Yiddish, and Zwahili. Babel Fish never reached this level of development due to the time in which it was created, and the fact that there was more focus on acquiring the website rather than improving it.

The AltaVista Babel Fish website maintained an average of 500,000 translation requests per day, making it both popular with users and intriguing for buyers. Babel Fish also had a clean interface with blue and white colors. The primary blue translation box served as the main focus.

As time passed, the service started to offer translations for emails, along with plugins for things like personal websites.

How Did Babel Fish Fit in the Machine Translation Revolution?

Babel Fish was a form of machine translation, and it actually wasn’t the first attempt at developing this sort of tech.

Warren Weaver’s Memorandum on Translation mentioned that machine translation was becoming a hot new field, so a philosopher named Yehosha Bar-Hillel started experimenting with it at MIT in 1951.

The result was used as a solution for checking in on the Russians, but all sorts of other machine translation programs were quickly created in Russia, England, Japan, and other countries as well.

Some other landmark achievements include Brigham Young University’s attempt to translate Mormon text with computers in 1971, and the Xerox company making a program to directly translate technical manuals for internal use. Several other instances of machine translation technology came about, but AltaVista Babel Fish was the most successful of its time, with the most consumer appeal because of its simple, direct user interface.

Babel Fish Left an Undeniable Mark on Translation

Though Babel Fish as it was in its heyday no longer exists, it does leave behind a legacy as the pinnacle of online translation at the time. And it helped to pave the way toward the more accurate machine translators, like Google Translate, that we now enjoy.