Babel Fish is a free web tool made available through Yahoo! that translates inputted text or websites. Users can enter text up to 150 words and receive a translation, or they can enter the address of a website and be directed to a translated version of the site. Currently, Babel Fish has the capability to translate out of or into 12 languages, though not all pairs are available. All of the available languages -- Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish -- can be translated into or from English.
Babel Fish was developed by search engine company AltaVista and became a Yahoo! based service in May 2008. The technology behind Babel Fish is SYSTRAN, one of the oldest machine translation companies, founded in 1968 in La Jolla, California. SYSTRAN was originally developed to translate Russian into English for the United States Air Force during the Cold War. In 1986, SYSTRAN was purchased by the Paris-based Gachot family, though the company still has an office in La Jolla.
Babel Fish was named after a character in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The character is a small yellow fish, like the logo for the translation tool, that can be placed in the ear to allow someone to understand any language of the universe. The character, in turn, is named after the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, an account of the origin of the world's languages. Genesis 11 tells of the attempt of Babel's inhabitants to build a massive tower dedicated to the glory of man. In order to confound their attempt, God scattered the people of the city and gave each person a different language so they could not communicate.
Babel Fish usually translates well enough for the user to understand the gist of the translated material, but it does not claim to produce a perfect translation and in particular does not deal well with idioms. Round-trip translation, in which Babel Fish is used to translate from one language into another and then back to the original, often produces humorous results.