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Question: Where would you find an English>Italian translation of “My wife is pregnant I need a midwife” as “My wife is pregnant need to beat wife”? Answer: Google translate.

In their continuous bid to take over the world, Google’s latest target is the translation industry. With recent news that Google have launched a new iPhone app that translates audio (i.e. you can speak a phrase or sentence into your phone’s microphone and Google will translate it into over 50 languages), it seems that there is no area that Google can’t master. Professional language geeks that we are here at Lingua Translations, we had to give this new technology a go!

As sophisticated and practical as this gadget may sound, just a small amount of testing will uncover how using this app could get you into some serious trouble. Don’t get us wrong, we at Lingua Translations think very highly of Google and use many of its programmes on a daily basis. However, translation services are what we do best, so you’ll forgive us for feeling a little sceptical about the abilities of a machine to understand the intricacies of the translation process.

We decided to re-enact a situation between an English tourist looking for a police station and a Spanish speaker. Using the Google audio translate app, the conversation ran:

Professional translation services - by Lingua TranslationsEnglish voice recognition, 1st attempt: Where is the playstation?
English voice recognition, 2nd attempt: Where is the police station?
Spanish voice recognition, 1st attempt: Serrano is on the street
Spanish voice recognition, 2nd attempt: Serrano is on the street
Spanish voice recognition, 3rd attempt: The police are ham street
Spanish voice recognition, 4th attempt: Police on the street level
Spanish voice recognition, 5th attempt: The police are ham street

On the sixth attempt, the phone finally correctly picked up what the Spanish speaker was saying (La policia está en la calle serrano) but then translated it wrongly, into “The police are on the mountain road.” By this point there seemed to be no way to resolve the situation, and we presumed that the person trying to help would probably just give up on the unfortunate tourist.

As you can see, there are two main issues that are preventing this app from doing what it should do. The first is that it experiences huge difficulty in recognising what the speaker actually says. The second is that, even when the speech has been correctly identified, there is no guarantee that the translation will be accurate. If you type (or say) the German for ‘my handbag has been stolen’ (Mir wurde die Handtasche gestohlen) into Google Translate, it will produce “I have stolen the handbag” in English. Good luck telling that to a police officer! It’s no wonder then that in a recent survey by Lingua Translations, 83% of people said they wouldn’t trust machine translation services in an emergency situation, and 80% of people who had used a machine translation weren’t happy with the result.

Let’s not forget too that a mistranslation of even the smallest phrase could also have huge cultural implications, in some cases leading to serious offence or insult. In one instance during testing, the app recognised “Are there nuts in this?” as “I’m a Nazi”! Google Translate has also recently been in trouble over a mistranslation from Arabic into English. As one astonished user discovered, Google translates the Arabic for “there is only one God” (مديرية أراضي اسرائيل ) into “Israel Lands Administration” in English. Given the political tensions between some Arab and Israeli communities, often involving issues over land ownership and/or religion, this mistranslation is highly offensive and anyone attempting to use it could be placed in a dangerous situation. Google have promised to look into this, but so far haven’t managed to find a solution.

So the possible errors produced by Google Translate are endless. A quick search for anything relating to Google Translate will immediately bring up hundreds of complaints from dissatisfied users of the service. Amongst the more humorous search results are posts like “Can teachers REALLY tell when you’ve used Google translate?” Unfortunately for this teen the answer was of course Yes; a machine translation could rarely pass for a human translation. What this case, and many others, highlights is our increasing over-dependence on machines, particularly amongst young people. Some have said of Google’s new gadget, “we may never need to learn a foreign language again” but inevitably, machines just don’t cut the mustard when it comes to accounting for the complexities of a language or the skill required to provide quality translation services.

Added to this is the potential cost of using this gadget and the privacy issues involved. Although it is a ‘free’ app, you must be connected to the internet to be able to use it, and if you’re abroad (the most likely situation in which you would need to use the app) roaming charges could mean you run up extortionate bills. Not only that, everything you type into the app can be used by Google for whatever purpose they so wish, including passing on information to other organisations and individuals.

Ultimately, we had a great time playing around with the new app but the implications of using it in an emergency situation, or unknowingly using a mistranslation, are just too serious to ignore. We wouldn’t trust a machine to write or speak for us, so why should it be any different in another language?

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