Use your Brain: Experiments with Google Translate

A while ago over dinner with a friend I got to talking about the fine art of translation and its future. My dinner companion(a non-translating German native speaker who did his undergraduate degree in England) commented on the future of machine translation and mentioned Google Translate. I reiterated my standard position – that Google Translate is fine if you want a really rough idea of what is being said in a language that you do not at all understand, but is no substitute for a human translator. ‘But I use it all the time’ he said. ‘I just put my text through Google Translate and fix the mistakes afterwards’. I explained that the Google Translate approach would not work for me at all. It would not make me faster –  I have to structurally reformulate most sentences I translate anyway, so each translated sentence is typed afresh with or without Google translate. In fact, if anything it would make me slower – using a machine translation from German as a basis might lead one to construct more German sounding sentences, which would have to be corrected in the proofreading stage anyway. All you really need to translate well is something to write with and your brain! Right?

Hmm, maybe not. Just a few days after my conversation, Spiegel Online published a fawning article about Google Translate. ‘The best translation program yet’, it cried. ‘The age of machine translation has begun’. Funny that Spiegel should publish this, I thought, don’t they use human translators to translate articles into English? So what if Spiegel used Google Translate? An experiment was born.

The Test

I found an article that Spiegel published the following week in both German and English. The German original version ‘Schuldenstatt: Griechenlands große Depression’ is here. The English version ‘The Great Depression: Greeks struggle with Sick-Man Status’ is here. I just put the original German version through Google translate and had a look at what came out the other side. I obviously translated the whole article, but for brevity sake I’ve selected just the opening paragraph to post here. The quality of the translation you see here was average for the text – not the best, not the worst. So, drum roll please, here are the results……

Original: “Sie räumen ihre Konten leer, verzichten auf Urlaub, fahren Bus statt Auto und sorgen sich um ihre Jobs: Die Griechen ächzen unter der schweren Krise ihres Landes. Auch ihr Selbstwertgefühl leidet – vor allem von Deutschland fühlen sie sich gedemütigt.”

Human: “They’ve emptied their bank accounts, abandoned vacations and started taking the bus. Now, they fear for their jobs: The Greeks bemoan the difficult crisis that has taken over their country. Above all, they feel humiliated by Germany.”

Google Translate: “You agree that empty their accounts, not to leave, take bus instead of car and worry about their jobs: The Greeks groan under the severe crisis in their country. Her self-esteem suffers – especially Germany, they feel humiliated.”

Ok, so the results are not great. But would a native English speaker editor who did not speak German or have access to the German original be able to fix this text? I sent it on to a Heidi Henrickson, academic editor, ESL teacher and Translabor network member. Here is what she came up with:

“If faced with the sentence you provided below, I would only hazard a guess at its author’s intent, based on what I’m hearing in the news:
“Greece is suffering from the severe economic crisis: many Greeks are being forced to empty their bank accounts, replace their modernity and independence for a more austere way of life, and they are faced with the threat of high unemployment. Europe’s (especially Germany’s) self-esteem suffers, and its people feel humiliated.””

There we have it. A human translator could do the job better and faster without Google Translate and the Google translation is too poor to be fixed by an experienced professional editor. Just about the only people who might be happy with the Google Translation are non-native speakers like my dinner companion, who could probably take the above and turn it into something in ‘Denglish’*. But why would anyone pay for a bad translation? Surely one may as well go the whole hog, pay a few extra Euros and hire the native speaking human.

For what its worth, Heidi is with me on this one. Once again I’ll let her speak for herself.

“I would never, ever use computer translation software for my business. Not even to do a ‘rough draft’ version. I want a translator to work with the original text because it contains the content, the style of speech or writing, and often the ideological views of the writer. A great deal of this would be lost in a computer-generated translation, in my opinion.

Further, when I worked for an academic publisher in the United States, we received a batch of journal article summaries generated by a sophisticated, expensive computer program created for that sole purpose. The program was used extensively by our parent company. Overwhelmingly, the abstracts the program produced were incoherent, and often the facts presented in the original article were distorted or changed. Over 90% of these summaries were un-usable. It is for this reason, as well as the reasons I mentioned above, that I would never replace the nuanced mind of a professionally trained human with a computer program.”

Use your brains, people. It’s the only way to translate.

*German English


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