Whenever I tell people what I do for a living, the first question I get asked is: “So how many languages do you speak?” (A: 2) The second is often what my opinion of Google Translate is. If I’m concerned that it will make our industry obsolete (not really), what the quality of translation is (varies), and isn’t it amazing? (Yes) Google Translate works by analyzing web pages and other online content that is already translated into multiple languages, and using this content as its “translation memory”. So in reality, its output is only as good as the input… and being that the internet as a whole is its input… you get the idea. Individual users can suggest better translations, which seem to have helped its quality, but you still get pretty quizzical translations sometimes. It’s also important to remember that anything you feed into GT might become the property of Google forever, so if you have any confidential or sensitive information, you at least want to take out any identifying company names, or names of individuals out of any text, if you decide to use it at all.
Having said all that, GT is an amazing tool. I use it at least a few times a week. The main ways I find it useful is for the purposes of:
1. Verifying Text Placement – Translators tend to regard themselves as artisans, more than technologists. To this day, when working with certain translators, they ask if they have to use a computer-assisted program rather than just translating “as they see it” (yes, yes you do). As a consequence, even though our translations are seen by the initial translator, their proofreader, and another translator, we still have to take the additional step as project managers to make sure that nothing got missed (especially white text), that there are as many paragraphs/numbers/bullets as the original, and that the text all fits where it’s supposed to (doesn’t get cut off due to text growth). I use GT to identify target lines of text against the source, to make sure the text is in the right place.
2. This just looks wrong! I had a Kannada translation the other day, and part of it was a date. However, the portion that was supposed to be the date seemed to be in the wrong cell. I ran it through GT, and found that the date was indeed in the wrong cell. As it turned out, the translator informed me that because word order is different in Kannada than English, they did it that way so the text would display correctly. But I’m still glad I checked.
3. What does this say? vs. what does this mean? GT provides very “Gist”-y translations. It’s useful if you find an article, or document in another language, and want a direct translation just to get a general idea of what it’s about. However, professional translators aren’t looking for verbatim word-for-word equivalencies in the target language, they’re looking for a way to effectively communicate the meaning to a reader who speaks the target language (and almost always belongs to another culture). For example, to say “I dropped the ball” in Spanish, you wouldn’t say “yo lo cae la pelota” (literal) you would say instead: “Se me cayó la pelota”, or the ball got dropped. GT has been improved enough where if you enter in English “I dropped it”, you get the correct Spanish translation (color me impressed!), BUT if you enter the incorrect “yo lo cae la pelota” (SPA>ENG), guess what English translation it gives you? Similarly, if you enter “I missed my plane,” it gives you “Me perdí mi avión” (it should be “vuelo”… “avión” makes sense, but almost no one will ever actually say this. I found 3 hits over all of Google when I entered it as a search term, vs. 383,000 for the correct translation). Now, if you enter “I missed my flight”, it gives you the correct translation. But you have to be expecting these issues in order to get the correct output. A non-Spanish speaker is going to get some pretty inaccurate results, or at least funny-sounding ones, eventually.
GT is an amazing tool. I can’t stress that enough. Some in the translation industry have been offering proofread Google translations as a way to cut customer costs, in an industry that often finds it difficult to explain its overhead to its customers. We find that this approach restricts the translator too much, and it also makes it difficult to work with our existing translation memories for our long-time clients, so up until now GT post-editing hasn’t been a service that we offer. We have to advise against ever using GT by itself for anything that’s going to be disseminated, whether on a public sign, or even an internal document without the caveat: “This came from Google Translate”. I’ll leave you with one more funny Spanish-English example. I entered “I am full” into GT, and I got “Estoy lleno”. If I’m a woman, it’s “estoy llena”… but in many places that means “I’m pregnant”! Use Google Translate as the amazing tool it is, but recognize its limitations. Or be prepared for some embarrassment.