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What’s the deal with Google Translate?

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Love it or hate it, everyone uses it to some extent. It can be a great helping tool or it can completely ruin a text. At the end of the day, it’s very important to decide when and how to use it. Here’s our take on this.

The way that Google Translate works is that it uses frequency of word pairs between two languages as a database for its translations. Although this works well in some cases, often this means that it cannot put a translation into proper context without the help of a human, because it lacks general knowledge and doesn’t have any humor for example. So what are the pros and cons of Google Translate vs. professional translation?

THE PROS

  • It’s completely free. A professional translator can be expensive but remember: you get what you pay for.
  • It’s quick as a wink. One of I’s main advantages is that it’s very fast. A human translator can compete neither with the speed nor the quantity of translations that Google Translate is able to perform. A professional translator can translate 1,500-2,000 words per day provided it is a text of general nature with no special formatting. In contrast, Google Translate is able to produce a translation with the same number of words in just seconds!
  • Its algorithms are based on statistical analysis.* When Google Translate generates a translation, it looks for patterns in hundreds of millions of documents to help decide on the best translation. By detecting patterns in documents that have already been translated by human translators, Google Translate makes intelligent guesses as to what an appropriate translation should be.

* In November 2016 Google introduced the Google Neural Machine Translation (GNMT), a system that uses an artificial neural network to increase fluency and accuracy in Google Translate. By using millions of examples, GNMT improves the quality of translation, using a broader context to deduce the most relevant translation. The result is then rearranged and adapted to approach grammatically based human language. As of July 2017 all languages currently only support this method of translation to and from English. Here you can find the current list.

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THE CONS

  • It often produces translations that contain huge grammatical errors. This is due to the fact that Google’s translation system uses predictive algorithms to translate text which do not take into account grammatical rules.
  • It doesn’t translate directly from one language to the other. Translating the required text into English before translating into the selected language is still a mandatory step (L1 → EN → L2), although the Neural Machine Translation system is slowly introducing the “zero-shot translation”, which will be able to directly translate one language into another. As mentioned above, no non-English language pairs are supported currently.
  • The meaning can be “lost in translation” because there’s no way to add context. The complexity of the text, as well as any context which cannot be interpreted without a true knowledge of the language, makes the likelihood of errors greater. The use of Google Translate often results in meaningless literal translations while professional translators make huge efforts to ensure that this does not happen by using well-established online glossaries, back translation methods, proofreaders and reviewers.
  • The quality of the result depends on the language pair. The source and the target language also affects the quality of the translation. Due to the differences in complexity and nature of language, the accuracy varies greatly among languages. Since Google’s web-based translation database is built primarily from existing online translations, common translations for languages e.g. Spanish or English tend to be more accurate while translations for other languages that are not as available in Google’s database are less likely to be accurate.

As you can see from the above-listed pros and cons, although you may sometimes have success using Google translate, you would not want to use it for anything of great importance without checking to make sure that there are no errors in context, grammar or otherwise. That is a job for a professional translator.

We recommend using it if:

  • You need to understand a text in a language you don’t know at all.
  • You need a translation ASAP and you would like to speed up the process a bit. You can type in or copy-paste the source text and then carefully proofread and review the results.
  • You have to access a website in a foreign language and find the info you’re looking for.
  • You go to a foreign country and don’t know the native language and you’d like to get around more easily.*

* In this case, the Google Translate App is a must! You can now use your phone’s camera to instantly translate signs and menus or use the app to save phrases you might need on the go. But be careful with tricky situations involving official documents or for example a Summary of Product Characteristics (SmPC) in case of needed medication, as in some cases it can go horribly wrong.

All in all, if you don’t trust Google Translate with anything super important, it can come in very handy. So use it wisely, or as someone else has put it: Use it as a crutch, rather than a leg to stand on.

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