Computer says ‘no’… to computer translations

Without a doubt, GoogleTranslate is one of the technological marvels of our times.  I myself, a professional translator, have used it to translate pages from Eastern languages where I’m interested in the content, if not necessarily the way it’s said.  I’m not about to get on my high horse and say that it’s an absolute abomination of the modern era and is destroying the translation industry, because it most certainly is not.

That said, I think a demonstration is in order to show GoogleTranslate’s shortcomings.  There’s no doubt about Translate’s ability to interpret individual words and it’s even useful for advanced high-tech or sci-tech terminology that you can’t find in your bog-standard dual language dictionary.  But Translate’s real shortcoming is not a shortcoming in code:  its shortcoming is the fact that it is not human, and like humans languages change and evolve and sometimes say one thing to mean the exact opposite (cue Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’).

So let’s have a little play around with GoogleTranslate and see what comes up.


The above is an expression you’d most likely hear on the streets of Madrid—two businessmen discussing how much something has cost: Doscientos pavos por la cara, m’a dicho, logo trescientos más.  The first problem with this expression is that it’s vaguely slangy—pavo literally means ‘turkey’.  Although I was anticipating this to catch Translate out, the machine gets at least a half-point for the American ‘bucks’.  However, as I accessed the site from would ‘quid’ have been too much to ask?

Secondly, Translate doesn’t take into account regional dialects.  The m’a dicho and logo above are both Madrilene dialect corruptions of me ha dicho (he/she/it [has] told me) and luego (lit. ‘later’, in this case ‘and then’).  This catches the machine out as it’s not ‘proper’ Spanish.  Mind, if we do use proper Spanish (see below), it’s not much better, and the translation of luego as ‘after’ is actually the opposite of what is meant in Spanish!


Lastly, Translate can’t manage colloquial expressions.  Por la cara (lit. ‘by the face’, ie ‘up front’) is almost as common as pavo and yet, because GoogleTranslate works primarily on a one-word basis, ‘up front’ becomes ‘for the face’.

I’m not trying to denigrate Translate and I think it does a great job for what it is.  But I wouldn’t want it translating my website, or the Articles of Association for my new start-up or even an e-mail from a friend.  Language is a particularly human trait.  And although computers superficially use a language that looks and reads like our own, would you ever want to replace our spoken English with programmer’s code English?  No, me neither!

So what would the above example look like translated by a human? I personally would say: He told me 200 quid up front and then 300 more at a later date. And that’s the difference between GoogleTranslate and the human mind.

So if you ever consider having a translation done and are weighing up the options, take the human translator every time.  Because you can communicate with another human much more easily than you can with a computer, and the whole purpose of a translation is effective communication.

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