Testing the Limits of Google Translate

Google Translate is an amazing thing.  You can take a chunk of text in just about any language, paste it into Google Translate, and it is instantaneously (if imperfectly) translated.

Since I can’t speak anything other than English, I’m not in a great position to say how good or bad the translations are, but my multi-lingual friends generally turn their noses up at Google Translate, saying it doesn’t do that great a job.

My response is that compared to any other alternative I know (like trying to track down someone who speaks Croatian, or going word by word through a Croatian-English dictionary), it seems like a miracle.  I love it.

But even Google Translate has its limits.

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 2.56.54 PMA few weeks back, I was in Germany.  I know a little tiny bit of German – enough to say things and sometimes be understood, but not enough to understand when people speak to me, usually.  I wanted to thank my hosts for being so gracious.  Just to be sure that what I was going to say in German made sense, I typed it in English into Google Translate and asked for the German translation.  What Google Translate gave back to me seemed a bit odd, but then again, German often seems odd to me.

I rehearsed the phrases until I was comfortable with them, and then confidently approached my host Hedwig (who spoke essentially no English) and told her, in German, how kind they had been and how nice it had been to be with them.

Usually when I do this, I am met with smiles and enthusiasm.  But this time, my host just looked at me forlornly.  So I said it again, more slowly and clearly.   She put her hand on my shoulder gently, the message being that what I said was so far from real German that I should please not say it again.  But I kept trying, even, in the end, spelling out some of the words.  The longer I tried, the more confused she became.

So I finally figured I would just show her the written words, still on my phone in Google Translate.

And that’s when I realized the problem.  I had meant to type in “I had such a nice time with you.”  Instead, I had typed in “I had such a mice time with you.”

Not even Google Translate is smart enough to overcome that kind of stupidity, at least not yet.

I will be much more careful the next time I use Google Translate this way!

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  1. Magnus Eriksen says:

    Good point!

    I, being reasonably good with six european languages, agree with you that Google Translate or Babelfish for that matter are actually quite good. I work in an environment where I quite often have to communicate in languages I only have a very vague notion of how they work, and the automated translations come in very handy.

    As you point out, they often miss out the finer points in what you want to convey, and sometimes giving ridiculous suggestions. And naturally, we cannot expect them to correct our mistakes for us.

    A ‘trick’ I tend to use in situations like the one you describe with Frau Hedwig, is to put in the text you want to translate, e.g. from English to German. Then reverse the translation and see what it pushes back at you. It is not foolproof, but it has saved me from saying really stupid things more than once!

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    • Shane L says:

      Good idea Magnus! For fun I pasted your last paragraph into Google Translate, turned it to Japanese, then pasted the Japanese into Translate and turned it to English.

      Original:
      “A ‘trick’ I tend to use in situations like the one you describe with Frau Hedwig, is to put in the text you want to translate, e.g. from English to German. Then reverse the translation and see what it pushes back at you. It is not foolproof, but it has saved me from saying really stupid things more than once!”

      Re-translated version:
      “Tend to be used in situations like you describe one of the 1 Frau Hedwig the “trick”, I from English to German is that in the text you want to translate, for example, put. Then, reverse translation, please refer to either push back to you. It is not foolproof, but it saved me more than once, he had said something really stupid!”

      It’s jumbled, but really not too bad!

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  2. YX says:

    Google translation is absolutely awful with any East Asian language. Bing translation is the only thing I prefer over Google.

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  3. Eric Moody says:

    I once tested Google Translate vs. six other online translation engines, translating the same text. Google won, hands dumb. I mean, hands down!

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  4. Ludwig Mini Van says:

    “Since I can not speak anything other than English, I’m not a great chance to say how good or bad translations, but my multilingual friends tend to turn their noses up Google Translate words, it does not do that much work.”

    That’s your paragraph above, translated into Finnish and then back into English.

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    • Mike S says:

      That’s exactly how I use it. Translate to the foreign language, then translate back to English to make sure that it makes sense.

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  5. caleb b says:

    As an old Latin student, I have three thoughts on Google Translate:

    1) I wish that I had Google Translate back when i was conjugating verbs
    2) i lament as today’s students will use it instead of actually learning how to conjugate verbs
    3) i take solace in the fact that conjugating verbs in Latin is fairly useless, so any cheating won’t cheat them of much

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  6. Jason says:

    But Google Translate IS that smart. If I type “I had such a mice time with you”, a suggestion shows up right under the text box: “Did you mean: I had such a nice time with you.”

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  7. Ben says:

    If you type your phrase into the regular browser version, as opposed to the mobile version, it actually offers a correction.

    https://translate.google.com/#auto/de/I%20had%20such%20a%20mice%20time%20with%20you.

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  8. Marian Kechlibar says:

    Being Czech, having working proficiency in English, German and some Polish, I can attest that within closely related groups (Slavic, Germanic) Google Translate does remarkably good job. No one would mistake the results for utterance of a native speaker, but comprehensibility is fine.

    On the other hand, Slavic-to-Germanic and the other way round is much worse, in an odd way. Some sentences are fine, some are garbled beyond recognition.

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