Google Translate: What’s the worst that could happen?

Contributed by Wendy Pease an EO Boston member and president of Rapport International, which specializes in multilingual communications, providing language translation and interpretation services that are accurate and culturally appropriate. We use the right voice, correct terminology to avoid liability, customize services to your needs, and deliver on time and within your budget. We asked Wendy about the differences between human and machine translation. Here’s what she shared:

In the US and other English-speaking countries, the tagline “Driving Matters!” brings the popular car company Mazda to mind.

Yet in Japan, the company’s tagline is “Jinbai Ittai,” a phrase that captures the feeling of a horseman warrior, riding across the plains totally in sync with his horse, or “the oneness of horse and rider.” Mazda wanted the tagline to evoke the energy and passion you feel when you drive their cars. Had their marketing department used Google Translate to convert the tagline to English, they would have sent a much different message to their US customers.

On three separate occasions, I put “Jinba Ittai” into Google Translate. The “oneness of horse and rider” translated to the following:

  • One Horse
  • Danger
  • Jinba (the current translation)

Fortunately, the marketing team at Mazda researched the best way to adapt their tagline: human translation. Sure, taglines are a special case, so it makes sense that they benefit from human translation, but what about other text? How does Google Translate do with everyday language?

The Limits of Google Translate

I recently read Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime. This award-winning comedian and host of The Daily Show wrote about growing up in poverty in South Africa under the shadow of Apartheid.

In the book, he explains the meanings of several words that were part of his everyday language. I entered a few of the terms into Google Translate, to see if the definitions would agree with Mr. Noah’s explanations.

Word

Definition

Google Translate

Amabhujua

Very poor person who acts like they are rich by dressing fashionably even though they live in shacks

butterflies

Amperbaas

Black people who are almost white, “almost there”

barely a boss

Vetkoek

Donut or beignet

fat cake

The results were less than impressive. This comparison shows that Google Translate is—at the very least—limited in its depth of translation and doesn’t take cultural understanding into account.

Here’s another example. When interacting with foreign colleagues, you might find yourself experiencing what the Japanese call yoko meshi. This phrase describes the stress of speaking a foreign language. Yet if you rely on Google to translate this phrase for you, it translates yoko meshi as “horizontal.”

The Finnish have a word that suited pandemic times. Kalsarikännit means that you are getting drunk at home, alone, in your underwear, with no intention of going out. But don’t use Google Translate to talk about this with your Finnish friends! Google defines kalsarikännit as “buttocks” when you use a capital “K” and “pantyhose” when you use a lower-case “k.”

Translations from English

Does Google do any better translating English words into other languages?

Let’s look at the word redneck. For English speakers in the US, the term redneck refers to someone who typically lives in a rural area and is seen as being unsophisticated and crass. When I ask Google to translate redneck into Arabic, German and Spanish, I get answers that are very different:

  • Arabic – “backward.”
  • German – “farmers.”
  • Spanish – “white peasant.”

This shows that Google is equally limited in its translation capabilities, both from other languages into English and from English into other languages.

An experienced human translator with cultural knowledge will know how to translate and adapt these types of words to maintain the intended meanings.

Google Translate: Issues and opportunities

When I purchased a translation company in 2004, the idea of machine translation was scary and exciting at the same time. Would it put the company out of business, or would it make our jobs easier?

The more we learn about machine translation, the more we see that there are issues that come with the opportunities it offers.

The downside of Google Translate

Understanding the limitations of Google Translate will help you decide if it will work for your purposes.

  • Grammar: Sentences translated with Google are often grammatically incorrect. This could change the intended meaning and have a big impact on your audience.
  • Flow: When you read a paragraph that is machine translated, the errors in syntax (the order or arrangement of words and phrases) make it sound awkward, stiff, and clunky.
  • Cultural nuances: As in the examples I mentioned, cultural nuances are important. If you don’t understand what the word means to its native speakers, you can’t be sure your message says what you think it says.
  • Slang: If you are writing something for machine translation, be very careful in your word choice. Slang, colloquialisms, irony, or idioms all fall under the cultural nuances that can be lost in translation.
  • Feelings: If you want to communicate a feeling with a specific word or phrase, make sure that the translation captures the right sentiment. Machine translation can’t understand the feelings behind a word; it just searches for a word or phrase match.
  • Intention: Do you intend to express your meaning gently or persuasively? Words can have the same meaning but different intentions. The subtleties are lost in Google Translate.
  • Duplicate content: If Google Translate is reading and translating the content on your website, it may show up as duplicate content and impact your search engine optimization.

The upside of Google Translate

Sometimes using machine translation can be both appropriate and effective, like in these situations:

  • Casual: For casual conversations, Google Translate can be a fun tool for communicating across languages. There may be translation errors, but when you figure them out, you can laugh at the mistakes together. In a casual situation, there is low risk or liability with making mistakes.
  • Gist: Google Translate can be a great tool if you need an idea of what the content is saying but have no other translation option available, such as when you receive an email in a language you don’t know,
  • Open doors: When human translation isn’t a timely option, Google Translate can provide assistance. Let’s say you are making a reservation on a travel website, but you want to look at the reviews first. Google Translate can be a handy tool to give you some insight into what your fellow travelers have to say about the listing.

To decide if Google Translate can meet your translation needs, consider the following. If your translation could lead to an increase in revenue, increase your risk, or affect your bottom line, your best bet is to go with a professional translator. If not, have fun with some of the crazy translations Google Translate provides!

This post originally appeared on Rapport International’s website and is reposted here with permission.

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