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Do translation apps work?


Do translation apps work? Whether it’s ordering at a restaurant while on holiday, or deciphering a foreign language website, we’ve all at some point called the services of a translation tool, namely a certain Google Translate (which I will mostly focus on here). 

But the big question: does it work and how reliable is it? 

How does Google Translate work?

Before deciding how effective it is as a translation tool, let’s consider a few facts about Google Translate. Google set off on its mission to break language barriers all the way back in 2006, when it just had two languages. It now supports more than 130, from Albanian to Zulu, in some shape or form, and translates over 200 million words for a staggering half a billion people every day.

When Translate first started, its data sources were United Nations and European Parliament documents. Today these have naturally been replaced by AI, or Neural Machine Translation. This means that rather than translate word by word, the latest Google system attempts a whole sentence at a time. Translate has evolved quite considerably over the last decade to accommodate all formats, you no longer have to type things in but just say them or even hold your phone near a conversation.

You can even wave your phone over a menu in Madrid and Translate will turn into your desired language.

How accurate is it?

All sounds marvellous doesn’t it? On the surface, Translate is a slick tool. According to Google (rather marking their own homework), 85% of results are accurate. This actually stands up to reality if you type in single words or short phrases but starts to struggle with longer text. In order to illustrate further, let’s look at an example sentence translated into Italian.

I entered the following into Google Translate:

“Lately I’ve been busy with exams and have put my hobbies on the back-burner. I hope to get top grades so I can go to my university of choice.”

This is what Google Translate came up with:

Ultimamente sono stato impegnato con gli esami e ho messo in secondo piano i miei hobby. Spero di ottenere il massimo dei voti in modo da poter andare alla mia università preferita.

This is what I got when I retranslated it back into English:

“I have been busy with exams lately and put my hobbies on the back burner. I hope to get full marks so that I can go to my favourite university.”

On one hand Translate hasn’t made a complete train-wreck of it. In many ways this shows how the technology has moved on – at one time back-burner would have been translated literally as “burning the back” not the idiomatic phrase. But as you can see from the English retranslation, “top grades” became “full marks” and “of choice” came back as “favourite”, both of which were the case because they weren’t directly translated into Italian in the first place 

Clearly you can’t throw words into Translate like numbers into a calculator. Language is complex and at times illogical thanks to it being moulded by people and culture rather than formulae. 

In the end Translate needs some judgement. With the example above you can very well easily make yourself understood, but there have been far more awkward mishaps. I once had a man offer, in English, to bring two “irons” to a garden party in Spain. He meant griddles (the Spanish for both is plancha), but Google provided him with the wrong word in English. 

Final thoughts

Google Translate can be a useful tool, particularly if you find yourself somewhere where you don’t speak the language. But it does have its limitations, namely in navigating linguistic peculiarities. The best way to optimise it is to search for single words and short phrases. For most situations it will get you by, but proves less reliable in more formal settings. The great paradox: even Google itself doesn’t use its own translation software for business purposes! There are also other translation tools available such as WordReference.com, a collection of online dictionaries supporting 22 different languages. And if you’re really stuck, enlist the help of JUST: translation services.


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