Using computer translation: does it work?

A menu in India.

A menu in India. Photo: Mr. Fink / Flickr

The language barrier can be a challenge when vagabonding. At the time, it can seem frustrating. Usually, it’s funny in retrospect when you talk about it with friends. Technology is evolving fast, however. Smart people around the world are working feverishly to break down the walls separating us from communicating with each other. Voice and text recognition is improving at a rapid pace. Hopefully, a real-life electronic Babel fish will be invented soon.

Google has built a site called “Demo Slam,” where it invites users to submit videos of themselves using various Google Apps. A pair of girls submitted a video where they tried using Google Translate. Watch for yourself to see their results.

Personally, I’d be wary of relying totally on a machine translation. For individual words and simple sentences, it might work okay. Beyond that, I’d be concerned about outdated vocabulary and weird results coming up. I have used Google Translate to double-check my meaning when I type in Mandarin Chinese. Sometimes it throws up words that aren’t used in common, colloquial conversation.

Have you used computer translation in your travels? How did it work out? Please share your stories in the comments.

Posted by | Comments (4)  | May 28, 2012
Category: Languages and Culture, Notes from the collective travel mind

4 Responses to “Using computer translation: does it work?”

  1. GypsyGirl Says:

    First, that video clip is entertaining–thanks for sharing.

    And yes. I used Google translate one time to help understand a news article while ‘talking’ with an Iranian refugee about why she was fleeing to London. She spoke maybe ten words of English, and I spoke no Farsi. However, after convincing her to leave our hostel room–where she’d been huddled under her duvet, nervously texting on her mobile–I was compelled to make her feel part of that nights conversation in the common room. Thankfully, between my little Netbook (and Google translate)we were able to include/share her story with my four other Swahili/English companions. To round out the conversation,the physical ink on my arm helped,along with images she’d bring up on my computer screen. I discovered she was fleeing to live with her Aunt due to a Political uprising. She was a tattoo artist. Her boyfriend–still back in Iran– was a guitar player. Her sister was a model. And both girls were fighting against the traditional/religious wearing of the Burka. In the end I was able to explain to my non-tattooed African guys what a tattoo artist does and how ink is applied, and why she was fleeing from Iran, to go live in the UK with her Aunt. Frankly, at the time, I’d have been unable to fill in some of the key words needed to keep the conversation (and her story) going without the help of Google translate.

    That said, any translation–especially with the short-comings of computer knowledge–has its limits or faults. I tried to read a novel once set in Lisbon. Originally it was written in Portuguese. Translated to German. Then English, and I bought it in a Swedish bookshop in Skåne. It wasn’t until the attempt of reading this book, that I understood how much was really lost (between languages) in translation.

  2. Martin P Says:

    We used google translate all the time during our rtw journey but we couldn’t have survived without it in China. Very few people spoke English and we certainly do not speak any Cantonese. The funny story is about one of our visits to a restaurant where we tried to order a vegetarian dish. After a few pictures of food from my phone coupled with the google translation and reassurance gestures we finally received our dish. The result? Amazing tofu with vegetables… With sprinkled backon bits 😉 to this day I’m not sure if the translation failed or if the definition of vegetarian differs from the one we know. What do you think?

  3. k Says:

    Sadly, what is lost in translation is usually the most beautiful part of the original language. There’s no such thing as perfect translation, especially when it comes to literature.
    During travel, my inability to communicate through language has me give all my attention to the air the person has, subtle gestures they make, and action they take. Depending more on my instincts than language often allows me to have soul-to-soul communication with people and places, which is deeply satisfying. So except in a serious emergency, I don’t think I’ll use Google translate.

  4. John Says:

    I’m a professional translator for my day job. I once had a guy try to tell me I’d be out of job within ten years because of computer translation, but I still feel pretty safe for now. This is partly because I translate from Japanese to English, and Japanese is what is known as a “high context language”. This means that listeners/readers depend heavily on the context to fill in the (many) gaps in what is being said/written. Basically computers suck at this, which is why I feel safe. That said, I’ve read plenty of human translations by people who clearly haven’t taken time to understand what they are reading, or to do basic background research, and these are not much better than computer translations. It is quite conceivable that computer translations will reach a similar level before too long.
    Recently I translated a document from Japanese that had been originally written in French. So I did an English translation of a Japanese translation of a French document. Not a good idea, as I tried to explain to the client (much better to go directly from French to English), but they wanted me to do it anyway, so I used Google Translate to make sure my English translation wasn’t too different from the French original. I have survival French thanks to a surf trip in Morocco, and I think it’s worth pointing out that computer translation tools are way more powerful when you have even the beginning of a clue about the other language. Anyway, to cut a long story short, my casual observation is that the quality of the French-to-English translations produced by Google Translate is heaps better than Japanese-to-English, which is bordering on useless.
    I mentioned this to a friend with some experience in computational linguistics who filled me in on the back story. Apparently Google Translate was developed using the (massive) document set of official translations for the United Nations. These translations are produced by some of the best translators out there, and the two official languages of the UN are – you guessed it – English and French. When you consider that these are both Indo-European languages with a close historical relationship, then it’s perhaps no wonder that the results are actually not too bad.
    I guess it’s conceivable that one day Google Translate will have a similar high-quality document set for other language pairs, which could be a game-changer (but still subject to the comment I made earlier about high-context languages).
    Finally, I do have experience using computer translation to communicate in a language that I don’t really speak. When I was in Germany I tried to buy a second-hand car. I looked up websites for used cars, and found one that I liked (for quite a reasonable price – used cars in Germany and Japan are /really/ cheap because in major automobile manufacturing countries even new cars don’t cost too much). Anyway, I used BabelFish to exchange a series of emails with the car dealer, and eventually went to a small village in south west Germany to check out the car. They had the local English expert waiting to meet me, and in the end the deal fell apart when I couldn’t get German insurance without a German address, but I wanted to mention the /process/ that used to write the emails.
    First, I wrote an email saying what I wanted to say. I consciously avoided idioms, and I tried to keep all sentences as short as possible. I feed the first draft into BabelFish, and scanned the result. My Year 8 German wasn’t up to really understanding the translation, but I looked at it anyway. I think this is important – sometimes you can /smell/ a mistranslation even without being an expert in the other language. Then I fed the result back into BabelFish – from German to English this time. Then I checked the English back-translation. If any of the sentences were too different from my original email, I tried to come up with an even simpler, idiom-free way of saying the same thing. Repeat. And repeat again. And eventually, after three or four iterations, I came up with a way of wording my email so that the back-translation was more or less identical to the original.
    My point? Computer translation tools still have a long way to go. But if they are used with care and intellegience, they can be quite useful.