About Babel Fish

In "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", by Douglas Adams a babel living fish which, when placed in your ear, will live there and translate any form of language for you.  This enabled space travellers to understand any language spoken by creatures from all over the universe.  This part of the book was the inspiration for naming the Yahoo! website translation feature, originally run by Alta Vista.

Just like the competing search services Yahoo and Alta Vista; The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is slightly preferred to its competitor  'The Encyclopaedia Galactica' because:

  1. It is slightly cheaper
  2. It has the words:


written on the cover in large friendly letters

Shortly after the earth is destroyed in order to make way for a hyperspace bypass , Arthur Dent (an earthling; one of the main characters) finds himself in a Vogon spacecraft. Their voices are not exactly music to the human ear.

"You'll need to have this fish in your ear."

"I beg your pardon?" asked Arthur.

Ford (Arthur's friend, who turns out to be an alien) was holding up a small glass jar which quite clearly had a small yellow fish wriggling around in it…He gasped in terror at what sounded like a man trying to gargle while fighting off a pack of wolves.

Once he had the Babel Fish in his ear, Arthur understood perfectly. The Babel Fish lives on brainwave radiation from every source but its host. It then excretes enegry in the form of exactly the correct brainwaves needed by its host to understand what was just said.

The Babel fish is small, yellow and leechlike, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.

From The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.
Published by Harmony Books in 1979

The Babel Fish reverses the problem defined by its namesake; the original Tower of Babel (according to the Bible) inspired the Deity to confuse human beings by making them unable to understand each other.


Additional resources:

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