"Out of Sight, Out Of Mind"

There's an old story-- I don't know how old, but I first heard it twenty-five years ago-- about a computer that was programmed to translate languages. It was given the phrase "Out of sight, out of mind" as a test phrase to translate into Russian, and then, on a whim, the scientist asked it to translate the result back into English. The result was "Invisible idiot." So they tried it again, this time to translate was "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." The result they got was, "The liquor is ok, but the meat is rotten!"

By the miracle of modern technology, we can now try this experiment using "Babelfish". Here's what I found:

Babelfish translations

Out of sight, out of mind:

"The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak"


after twenty-five years of research, computers on the web translate slightly better than computers in jokes.


In 1995, John Hutchins tracked this translation story back to 1956, at which time it was already old. The whisky was invisible, or Persistent myths of MT

For what it's worth, though, I just back-translated the first line of the Japanese text of one of my stories back into English, using google translate. The line was "They never met, not when they were alive."

Babblefish translation of the Japanese version gives me: "Other things? Not yet phase? Resident in possession raw year."

So machine translation still has a way to go!

Page by Geoffrey A. Landis, copyright 1999