Toll Free: (800) 790-3680

Whatever Happened to Babel Fish? A Brief History of Internet Machine Translation

Tutorials » Whatever Happened to Babel Fish? A Brief History of Internet Machine Translation

These are copyrighted materials. When referencing them, don't be too lazy to include the link to the source:


Back in the late '90s, long before Facebook and Twitter, even before Google had taken over the internet as we know it, the leading search engine by a wide margin was AltaVista. People might have occasionally tried Ask Jeeves or Lycos or even HotBot, but if you wanted to really find something, AltaVista was where you went. One day, on the "advanced search" page, a little icon appeared that looked like a yellow fish—a new novelty that amused countless millions by translating text to and from a handful of different languages. Internet machine translation was born!

Get Quote

Babel Fish, named after a fictional species of fish that provided a similar service in Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide series, is the internet's original online translator. Long before Google Translate and Bing Translator, and even well into their tenure as the current reigning champions of internet machine translation, Babel Fish was the king of online translation. Propelled into the spotlight by the popularity of AltaVista, Babel Fish kept going even after the search giant fell to the popularity Google.

So where did Babel Fish come from? Though seemingly out of nowhere, Babel Fish actually has a long history. Though the online service launched in 1997, it has its roots in SYSTRAN, a machine translation company founded in California in 1968 to help the U.S. government translate Russian texts to English. By the late '90s, with the Cold War long over, SYSTRAN had turned to less covert operations and launched the Babel Fish service for individuals to translate text and websites.

Despite its tremendous runaway success, Babel Fish fell from grace and machine translation services by Google and Microsoft have taken its place. What caused Babel Fish to fall? In 2003, the service was bought by Yahoo!, and—as is their M.O. (see also: GeoCities,, Flickr, etc.)—the service was left stagnant, unsupported, and unpromoted, and simply fade away into obscurity. Though Babel Fish still exists, it is only in a technical sense, as it actually redirects its service through Microsoft Translator.

Want to write for Translation Services USA? Visit our Submit a Tutorial page. We’ll review your submission on any topic you think would be of use or interest to others, and if we like it, post it for the world to see!

Tutorials » Whatever Happened to Babel Fish? A Brief History of Internet Machine Translation

Translation Services USA® is the registered trademark of Translation Services USA LLC