The Hazards of Google Translate

I was speaking with someone last week who expressed surprise that Google Translate had done a less-than-optimal job at translating a passage of text from English to French.

I’ve spent more than my fair share of time using Google Translate over the past two weeks as my Ukrainian-speaking Cousin Sergey is here and while he’s making quick work of learning English, we fall back on machine translation for more complicated conversations.

While Google does have a useful explanation of Google Translate’s limitations – “This process of seeking patterns in large amounts of text is called ‘statistical machine translation’. Since the translations are generated by machines, not all translation will be perfect.” – this is likely an explanation that few people ever see, and so, with lack of any evidence to the contrary, I think the general assumption from the lay public is that when you type something into Google Translate in English, what you get back in Ukrainian or Persian or French is “right.”

But that’s just not true.

While these translations may be “right enough” to get a point across, especially for less ambiguous statements, you should never rely on Google Translate for translating important materials – things intended for print, legal documents, invitations to marry, etc. – as the opportunity for machine-induced error or ambiguity, to say nothing of the absence of local colour or subtlety, is high.


Clark's picture
Clark on October 25, 2011 - 00:21 Permalink

As far as Chinese is concerned it’s very far from accurate. But sometimes useful for single word translation and phonetic spelling. My wife often uses it for product names when she is out shopping and it’s somewhat useful as people are usually forgiving when you say ridiculous sounding sentences.