Google Translate is fast food compared to a professional translator. You know professional translation services produce a superior result but you go with the convenience of a product that produces the kind of disappointing results that habitual fast food eaters are all too familiar with.
Christiane Bernier, a Lionbridge senior director of operations for global translation services based in Montreal, acknowledges that Google has made strides in the quality of its translations, and that it certainly has some utility.
“If you just need a general idea of what something is about, for what we call ‘gisting purposes,’ Google Translate may be fine,” Bernier says.
Even in such situations, though, there are limitations: If you don’t speak the language into which you’re translating, you won’t know how much of the gist has actually been caught.
But if your translation requires any level of sophistication – if it involves, say, persuading someone to buy your services or describing the particulars of a product – you’re going to need more than a machine. You’re going to require a professional human translator and the translation tools that they use, to achieve those higher-language goals.
Three primary pitfalls of machine translation:
Google Translate struggles with words or expressions that have more than one meaning.
Clients can lose confidence in the products or services offered if they see that your company isn’t making accommodations for the nuances of a word’s intended use, and your corporate image could suffer, says Yolanda del Coso, a Lionbridge language excellence deployment manager based in Madrid.
With legal and technical texts, del Coso says, the user could even be placed in danger, as with, for example, the caution section of a manual for an electrical or medical device.
A common area of mistranslation is polysemous words – words with more than one meaning. As an example, del Coso cites “vino en botella,” which means wine in a bottle but gets translated to “she came in a bottle.” Another is “Prohibido, no pasar,” which means “Forbidden, no trespassing,” but is often translated as “I am in danger, not to happen.”
Another common area is the literal translation of sentences, failing to take into account the context. An example del Coso offers is “Please turn off the shower when you’re done” translated to “Por favor, vuelta lejos chaparrones cuando usted es hecho,” which means something to the effect of “Please, come back, faraway downpours when you are made.”
“If you rely only on simplistic statistical choices,” del Coso says, “inconvenient comments can appear in the translation.”
2) Political and social correctness
Machine translation can’t account for connotation in local languages. “The old and wise man” is often translated from English to Spanish as “el viejo y sabio,” which in Spanish, del Coso says, is disrespectful. When referring to old people, it’s appropriate to use the term “anciano.” “Viejo” is more equivalent to “codger.”
Machine translation doesn’t handle tone very well either, Bernier says. For example, it’s not going to differentiate between the nuances of how you speak to someone with whom you’re familiar versus someone you’ve never met.
“In English, we tend to be very casual,” she points out. “We’re on a first-name basis from the get-go. In certain languages, there are more levels of formality and communication, depending on how well you know the person and whether the communication is in writing or speaking.
“Those are things that machine translation doesn’t handle,” she continues. “Those are decision points that a professional translator will be making, depending on the particular situation.”
Google Translate doesn’t offer a nondisclosure agreement.
In fact, Google’s terms of service state that Google has the right to “to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”
“A mountain of difference”
Shariq Mirza, CEO of Ariba Investments, a real estate development firm in Fremont, CA, has been using professional human translators for 10 years for documents he shares with investors throughout the world. He confirms these shortcomings of machine translation, saying that services like Google Translate render literal translations that sometimes confuse the reader and “more often than not misconstrue what the intended meaning was.”
While acknowledging that professional translators are more expensive, Mirza says he’s received an “enormous amount of feedback” on the differences between documents translated by Google and those by a professional human translating service. The verdict: “A mountain of differences between the two.”
Clients appreciate that you “took the time to have your documents translated professionally and properly,” Mirza says.
As is generally the case, he adds, “You get what you pay for.”