Babel Fish

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The Babel Fish is an invention of writer Douglas Adams, who used it in his series of books called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It is a small creature, whose existence the Guide calls "the oddest thing in the universe".[1] If worn in the ear, it feeds on the user's brainwaves and excretes a matrix which encodes every known language, thus allowing the person immediately to understand anything in any language—as illustrated in the Hitchhikers film where someone milking a cow manages to hear the cow's thoughts on the matter.[2]

Disproving God[edit]

Douglas Adams was explicitly an atheist (Richard Dawkins refers to him as his "tallest convert") and was quite a provocateur when it came to religion. This is well illustrated in the case of the Babel Fish entry in the Hitchhiker's Guide, which is repeated in most of the incarnations of the story. A reference is made to how Oolon Colluphid, author of books such as Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes, Who is this God Person Anyway? (perhaps a strong foreshadowing of the New Atheism trend of publishing anti-religious works), used the existence of the Babel Fish to argue for the non-existence of God (on the grounds that something so massively useful could not have evolved by chance):

"I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."

"But," says Man, "the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It proves you exist, and so therefore you don't. Q.E.D."
"Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't thought of that," and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

"Oh! That was easy," says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

Most leading theologians, however, consider this argument to be a pair of fetid dingo's kidneys. The disproof of God was absent from the film (time or pacing constraints, censored to prevent offence or just to avoid risking box office revenues? Who knows) but is available on the DVD as a deleted scene. This version is narrated by Stephen Fry, who is also a dedicated humanist, atheist (although his autobiography claims he shifts his views quite regularly) and owned the second Macintosh computer in the UK, with the first going to Douglas Adams.

Origin of the term "Babel Fish"[edit]

Babel in Adams's Babel Fish has origins with the Tower of Babel story contained in Genesis. Specifically, the name references the fall of the tower which caused the existence of the multiple languages of the Earth.

Hoax spawned by this story[edit]

An amusing hoax was spawned by this story which appeared for a time on Wikipedia. It referred to a certain concept called "Khalufid's Fork", which was allegedly conceived by an "Arabian philosopher" called "Ul-an Khalufid". The argument was suspiciously similar to that presented by "Oolon Colluphid". Before we get too smug though, we must remember that we were also taken in for a while.

Actual real world appropriation[edit]

AltaVista's Yahoo's translation site is called "babelfish". Yahoo now uses Bing Translator, but BableFish still exists, and retains the distinction of being one of the first text translation servers available, and also one of the most popular tools on the internet that hasn't been bought out by Google.[3]