Google Translate strikes again

16th September 2016

“Google Translate cannot be used as a complete translation tool. That expectation is misguided.”

While the above quote might be something you would expect a translation company, such as Foreign Tongues, to say, it might come as a surprise to learn that it was actually spoken by Te Taka Keegan – a Waikato University senior computer science lecturer who worked on Google Translate.

The reason for the statement came as he was asked to comment on yet another example of someone using Google Translate to translate an important document, instead of using a professional translator. In this instance, it was a Hamilton, New Zealand mayoral candidate’s bid to appeal to Maori voters, when he used Google Translate to translate his election message.

Te Taka Keegan, the Waikato University senior computer science lecturer who worked on Google Translate, states that “The gibberish that is written in the second part of this bio is barely recognisable as te reo Maori, it is disrespectful to the Maori language.” Dr Tom Roa, another senior lecturer of Waikato University, went on to say “ [It is] … very, very, very poor. It actually turns me off because it looks like somebody has just jumbled a whole lot of phrases inaccurately together and it doesn’t give a very good portrait of the person it is supposed to be supporting.”

Unfortunately, the above scenario is all too common. Sadly, many media outlets are guilty of printing press releases from tech companies, promising great advances in machines translation without any investigation as to whether the claims hold up. This can create an over confidence in the ability of machine translation to produce a coherent translation of the given source material, leading to national embarrassment in the worst case, such as the above, or a loss of confidence in an individual or company’s judgement at best.

The feeling that ‘professional’ translation isn’t required for certain documents or sections of text is a worrying trend that seems to be on the increase. Despite numerous examples and articles detailing the problems that using machine translation can cause, many sectors and departments still feel that Google Translate is ‘good enough’. After all, the client and / or customer will know what you mean, right?!?

While it may be true that a client will be able to sift through the alphabetti-spaghetti that machine translation provides, as Te Taka Keegan highlights, it is disrespectful to the language and to speakers of the language that you are trying to address. It also leads to a lack of confidence in other areas of the business or product. After all, if someone can’t be bothered to get the translation right, what else are being lazy with?

Further example is discussed in Human Translators vs The Rise of the Machines, where a well-known, international company was entrusting Google Translate to handle the translation of its most important and sensitive English language proposals in to Japanese, then sending them to prospective clients without the slightest concern for quality.

While the above may sound like scare stories, evidence suggests that this type of thing happens on a daily basis, in many company offices. Professional translation may seem like an un-necessary expense, especially when compared to ‘free’ translation services.
However, the reality is that professional translation is an investment in your company brand, similar to a professional marketing campaign. By building confidence in your clients and customers, you foster long term relationships that will pay off in the end. Taking short cuts when it comes to translation will, like many short cuts, prove to be a damaging strategy in the long term.

Foreign Tongues provides professional translation to all sectors, across all commercial languages. Contact us now and see how we can help you with your next project.

Sign up to our newsletter