Babelfish uses SYSTRAN technology. It’s “rules-based,” meaning that someone has tried to program things like “how to conjugate verbs” and “how to match gender and number.” It will never, can never, be able to traduce properly unusual expressions, metaphors… it also has some strange bugs like getting flumoxed by apostrophes. To create a new language pair, they need to define and program the “translation rules” for that language pair, they need new translation algorithms.
Google is corpus-based; it uses a database of translations. It uses the same algorithm for all language pairs, the differences in how well it does are due to differences in database size and quality. If you hover over a sentence translated by Google, you can “provide a better translation” to be added to the database; that’s how it improves (yeah, Google uses voluntary work). It will not translate poetry or metaphors well the first few times, but if its database contains a given metaphor and its translation, it will provide that. That translation can be provided by those volunteers, by Google’s employees, or by people writing webpages containing “Bob Dylan’s songs translated to Spanish.”
One of the exercises we did was “look for a text in a language you don’t understand which contains a word in your language, use both Babelfish and Google to translate it, compare. Then do it with a language pair you’re familiar with.” I got the wikipedia pages for José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (president of the Spanish government) in Finnish, Greek and English.
- Google was able to translate all to Spanish (Catalan and Galego are also in the list of possible languages, Basque isn’t… yet). Babelfish was able to translate the Greek to English and the English to Spanish.
- Google made some mistakes with gender in sentences where the original language used a neutral pronoun or no pronoun in reference to a person named in the previous sentence. Names were translated properly. Grammar was generally correct (but not always optimal). Apostrophes weren’t a problem. My Hungarian classmate said the Hungarian version blew goats.
- Babelfish was all over the place with grammar. Genders just go haywire. The translation from Greek turns Zapatero’s name into [Chose] [Loyis] [Rodrigketh] [Thapatero]. Apostrophes make it dizzy, both contractions and genitives.
In other exercises, Google translated imperatives into the imperative; Babelfish, into the infinitive. Euh? Ok, so “no smoking” is “prohibido fumar” (“it is forbidden to smoke”), but someone took that rule too far.
I agree that the best bet is a human translator, but it can be helpful for things like making sure you really got the page you wanted before sending it to the translator.