Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
May 16th, 2008


Pills with bank accounts

In high school, the Spanish teachers would always warn about the perils of using AltaVista’s Babel Fish service to quickly translate to and from English and Spanish. The canonical example was always, “I can pass the test,” which supposedly used to translate to, “Yo lata fallecer el probar,” or something to that effect. For the non-hispanophones out there, that ungrammatical sentence roughly translates back to English as, “I tin can pass away the to challenge” [major sic]. So much for Douglas Adams’ “proof” of the non-existence of God.

It gets better (read: more entertaining) with non-cognate languages, like those from the Near- and Far East. None of the major online translation services, like Babel Fish or Google Translate, offer automatic translation to or from Vietnamese, and it’s a good thing they didn’t. As I mentioned a couple years ago, even linguists can get the translation humorously wrong.

One of the few online automatic translators available comes from VDict.com, a website specializing in regurgitating open-source Vietnamese translation dictionaries, as well as automatic translations by Google Translate. One of their few original services is English↔Vietnamese automatic translation, powered by the EVTran software package. As an example, the Vietnamese Wikipedia’s opening paragraph, written in reasonably accessible diction, reads:

Hoan nghênh bạn đã đến với Wikipedia tiếng Việt! Đây là bách khoa toàn thư có nội dung mở và thuộc sở hữu cộng đồng. Dự án được bắt đầu từ tháng 10 năm 2003 do công sức đóng góp của nhiều người ở khắp mọi nơi, bạn cũng có thể tham gia. Hiện giờ chúng ta có 73.172 thành viên (có tài khoản), nhưng mới chỉ đóng góp được 40.343 bài thôi. Rất mong sự tham gia tích cực của bạn!

This paragraph roughly translates as:

Welcome; you’ve arrived at the Vietnamese Wikipedia! This is an open-content encyclopedia belonging to the community. The project began in October 2003, thanks to the efforts of many contributors worldwide; you can join in too. Currently, we have 73,172 members (with accounts) who’ve contributed only 40,343 articles. We really look forward to your active participation!

VDict translates it as:

Your éclat [French, “luster”] came wherewith Wikipedia Vietnamese! this is informative encyclopedia open and belong directly to community property. Project is initiated as of October in the year 2003 owing to contributing effort of many peoples here, there and everywhere, you is also participative. At the present time we has 73.172 become pill (have bank account), but newly only contribute 40.343 elution article. Wait your take an active part event very much!

In the absence of decent AI technology, automatic translation is only supposed to give you the gist of the message. Fine. But what in the world is this passage talking about, then? Apparently:

  • “Your luster” – splendid euphemism
  • Seventy-three and 43/250 people who have somehow metamorphosized into bank account–wielding medications – poor Horatio!
  • Just over 40 materials used in chromatography

For more fun, let’s take a paragraph from a random entry at this blog, from 2005:

It’s no different in San Francisco. Although Stanford prides itself on being diverse, they might’ve overlooked the task of diversifying campus opinions. Professors here assume you’d vote the straight Democratic ticket. You can never have a diverse, intellectually thriving campus without people willing to think the other way, without people encouraging thinking the other way.


Nó không có (thì) khác nhau ở San Francisco. Mặc dù chính Stanford lòng tự hào trên việc đa dạng, họ có thể đã trông ra nhiệm vụ của việc đa dạng hóa những quan điểm khu trường. Những giáo sư ở đây giả thiết bạn bỏ phiếu vé Dân chủ thẳng. Bạn có thể chưa bao giờ Có Một Đa dạng, hiểu biết thịnh vượng khu trường không có những người sẵn sàng để nghĩ cách khác, không có những người động viên nghĩ cách khác

At least the translation from English to Vietnamese gives you something of the gist of the message, sort of. Maybe it’s just that Vietnamese grammar is so much looser than that of English:

It doesn’t have different from each other in San Francisco. Although Stanford itself pride [the concept] atop diversity, they could’ve already considered out the responsibility of diversifying campus perspectives. Professors here assume you directly vote the Democratic ticket [a piece of paper]. You could’ve never Had One Diversity, understand campus stability, without having people get ready to think a different way, without having people ready to think a different way

Ah, Vietrish.


  1. Back in May, I noted that the major Web translation services, Babel Fish or Google Translate, hadn’t gotten around to supporting Vietnamese. Today, Google has, and my first thought was to try and break it.