June 28, 2017
Since its debut in 2006, Google Translate has gone from supporting just two languages— English and Arabic— to supporting 103[i]. Since then, the translation tool has advanced significantly. In late September of 2016, Google launched the Google Neural Machine Translation, or GNMT, which would replace the older Phrase-Based Machine Translation, or PBMT[ii]. According to MontLingo, rather than translating by word or phrase, GNMT considers the entire sentence, eliminating errors by up to 85% on several major language pairs compared to the older tool.[iii]
But even with these improvements, when compared to a human translator, does Google Translate really hold up?
The simple answer is, “No.” The following are five reasons why.
1. It doesn’t always correct incorrect grammar.
Foreign language grammar rules are difficult to learn, and Google Translate will not make the process easier. When incorrect grammar is entered, the translated output may provide a grammatically correct version of the phrase without explanation. For example, the grammatically incorrect “he are” is translated to the grammatically correct French “il est,” without clarifying why the first phrase is incorrect.
Awkward conjugations may not fly at a fancy dinner party, even if your forks are on the left.
2. It doesn’t always offer multiple definitions for the same word.
In English, the homonym “evening” has three meanings: it could either refer to the end of the day, to smoothing something out, or to make up for something. However, not every language on Google Translate can offer multiple definitions for homonyms or homographs. When “evening” is translated into Hebrew, only one meaning is offered: עֶרֶב, which refers to the end of the day. While the English to French translation offers six translations for “evening,” all but one are synonyms for the end of the day. The remainder offers a word like “soir” (evening), which is “la soirée,” (evening, show, party, or set).
Similarly, definitions for slang terms are not always offered. For example, the French to English translation of the word “chouette” offers the translation “owl,” but not the translation “cool” or “awesome,” which is the definition of “chouette” as a slang term.
If you’re adamant about learning chic jargon, Google Translate may not be the best resource.
3. It doesn’t always distinguish between formal and informal speech.
It is imperative to know the difference between formal and informal grammar in any language, but Google Translate can’t tell you which is which. For example, when “you are” is translated into French, two phrases are given: “tu es,” which is informal, and “vous êtes,” which is formal. Google Translate does not explain which term should be used to address friends, and which term should be used to address teachers.
Imagine you had an interview with the Dean of Admissions of your university of choice, and you addressed them as, “Dude.” You don’t want to address them with an informal pronoun.
4. It doesn’t always account for dialectal differences within the same language.
Vietnamese is composed of three main dialects: Hanoi (Northern Vietnamese, the standard dialect), Hue (Central Vietnamese), and Saigon (Southern Vietnamese)[iv]. According native speaker Lưu Vĩnh Phúc, these dialects differ greatly from one another, even in terms of vocabulary. “For example,” Lưu Vĩnh Phúc writes on Quora.com, “corn is called bắp in the Central and South but ngô in the North, or father is bố in the North but cha/ba in the South.”[v]
When “corn” is keyed in on Google Translate, “ngô” appears as the Vietnamese translation, along with 11 other words. But while “bắp” is provided in this list, the dialects to which these words belong to are not explained.
5. It doesn’t always translate idioms correctly.
After inputting an idiom into Google Translate, the result may be a close word-for-word translation rather than an accurate depiction of the idiom. For example, when the French phrase, “C’est la vie” is translated into Japanese, the words “それが人生です” (“sore ga jinseidesu”) appear. While the translation of the words is correct, the translation of the idiom is not. The Japanese phrase, “しょうがない” (“shouganai”), or, “It cannot be helped,” is a much closer substitute for the idiom “C’est la vie.”[vi]
Google Translate can also supply an accurate parallel for an idiom, but it may not translate well when entered back into the system. The Turkish equivalent for the English idiom, “Two heads are better than one,” is accurately provided by Google Translate. The equivalent, “Bir elin nesi var iki elin sesi var,” literally translates as, “What does one hand have? Two hands make a sound.” The proverb is another way of saying, “Two heads are better than one.”[vii] But when the Turkish proverb is entered into Google Translate, the English phrase that emerges is: “There is a hand of the hand and two of the hand of the hand.”
One might see this less not as a proverb, but as scene from Frankenstein.
Despite these flaws, Google Translate is not overhyped by any means— MontLingo even credits it as “the most advanced machine translation tool developed to date.”[viii] The system is beneficial to anyone looking to translate a word or phrase they don’t recognize from time to time, and for free. With its new features, such as the GNMT tool and the ability for users to report incorrect translations[ix], Google Translate continues to improve.
However, Google Translate should not be used as a primary source for language learning, nor as a dependable translation tool for official documents and publications. In other words, use it to order your meal at an authentic Italian restaurant, but not to write your Visa application to Italy. According to translator David Bellos, “Google itself wouldn’t think of using Google Translate to produce its publicity literature in the languages in which it sells its services. It uses human translators to do that.”[x]
If you’re looking for high quality translation, there are several translation companies globally that can provide you with professional native translation of your writing, in any subject or industry.
[i] Kroulek, Alison. “11 Google Translate Facts You Should Know.” K International, 2 May 2016.
[ii] Turner, Karen. “Google Translate is Getting Really, Really Accurate.” The Washington Post, 3 Oct 2016.
[iii] “A Short Introduction to Google’s Neural Machine Translation (GNMT).” Montlingo, 21 Nov 2016.
[iv] “Vietnamese.” Penn Language Center.
[v] Phúc, Lưu Vĩnh (23 May, 2015). How similar or different are the dialects of the Vietnamese language? [Msg 2]. Message posted to https://www.quora.com/How-similar-or-different-are-the-dialects-of-the-Vietnamese-language
[vi] “Shoganai is the equivalent of c’est la vie, but with an important difference; where c’est la vie and its foreign variants focus on external circumstances, shoganai focuses on the inability of the actor to change those circumstances.” Eisler, Barry. “The Essence of Japan.” IndieBound.
[vii] “Selected Turkish Proverbs!” Turkish Campus.
[viii] “A Short Introduction to Google’s Neural Machine Translation (GNMT).” Montlingo, 21 Nov 2016.
[ix] Kroulek, Alison. “11 Google Translate Facts You Should Know.” K International, 2 May 2016.
[x] “’A Fish In Your Ear’: What Gets Lost in Translation.” NPR, 14 Nov 2011.
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