Look, no one’s trying to make the case that auto-translation technology isn’t useful. But unless you’ve ever tried to explain to your Greek friends that the song lyric “wipe that dirt off your shoulder” doesn’t literally mean “wipe your shoulders away,” you might not fully understand how weird it sounds when you run complicated passages or idioms through Google Translate in an effort to sound vaguely intelligible. Is Google Translate accurate? It depends on how you’re using it. The short answer is that if you’re using it in the hopes of faking your fluency, you’ll probably out yourself within the first few words. Here’s why.
Is Google Translate Accurate?
Auto-translation technology has never been perfect — but it’s been steadily improving.
When Google Translate was launched in 2006, it used United Nations and European Parliament documents to collect language data and look for patterns. By design, this sort of statistical machine translation technology gets better the more language content it has. It establishes patterns by comparing content between pairs of languages via a probability factor (“How likely is it that x should be translated into y?”). In other words, if it finds that the probability of one word or phrase matching another word or phrase in another language is high, it then knows that they translate from one to the other.
Advances in “deep learning” — which means having, say, 12 layers of information to work with compared to two or three — have allowed Google Translate to effectively handle approximately 100 languages at this point. This transition basically meant that instead of comparing words and sentence fragments, it would now be comparing whole sentences to improve contextual accuracy. By processing these translations over and over again and constantly tweaking the outcome, the technology gradually improves on its own. It’s still far from accurate or fail-proof, however, and a lot of that has to do with its clunkiness around recognizing the intended meaning of non-literal phrases, understanding complex grammatical structures, and more.
The Biggest Google Translate Tells
The thing about using auto-translation is that it reliably twists your tongue in predictable ways. Sometimes it does so in unpredictable ways, too — a huge risk is that you might end up accidentally lobbing obscenities or sexually explicit words at strangers. It’s happened before.
Who better than to identify these classic tell-tale signs than teachers, though? In a Quora thread, a bunch of foreign language teachers shared the clues that usually tip them off.
- The word you’re looking for gets translated into the wrong part of speech. For instance, you want to say “fall down the stairs,” but you end up saying something to the effect of “autumn down the stairs.”
- Your idioms and turns of phrases make no sense whatsoever because these expressions usually don’t have a literal word-for-word translation into another language — if they have one at all. For instance, you wouldn’t “brush your teeth” in Japanese — you would “polish your teeth.”
- You wind up with implicit biases coded into your language, i.e. confusing grammatical and human gender. For example, artificial intelligence can sometimes assume, by default, that all doctors are male and all nurses are female. Yep, even robots can be sexist (though Google Translate has slowly been addressing these issues).
- You don’t get the correct pronoun to fit the context of what you’re saying. For example, some languages have different versions of “you” depending on who you’re addressing.
- You end up using unnatural-sounding words that are either too stiff, too antiquated, too informal or too foreign-sounding (because they contain regionalisms that are from a different part of the world). If you’re trying to cheat on a foreign language assignment, a huge tell is if you suddenly start using advanced words or grammatical structures you haven’t even been taught yet.
What Google Translate Is Good For
All things said, auto-translation technology is still a great tool. That’s why just asking “Is Google Translate accurate?” can be a limiting question. It’s really just a matter of learning how to use it in appropriate ways.
Google Translate usually works pretty well as an on-the-fly dictionary. Generally speaking, the fewer words you feed into its algorithm, the less likely it is to spew out indecipherable garbage.
If you’re in a foreign country and you just need to know how to ask for directions or a basic necessity, Google Translate can probably help you get your point across, however imperfectly. If you’re trying to navigate your way through an airport, you can actually use the Google Translate app to take pictures of a sign and have it automatically translated to you.
It’s also a useful tool if you’re just trying to get the basic gist of something that’s written in a foreign language. If you’re translating it back to English, you’ll usually be able to understand what it’s about. Having said that, do your best to try to understand the content in its original language first. When you translate whole pages, there are more opportunities for things to get lost in translation, and you might miss out on an important learning opportunity.