Google Translate: The Facts

There have been some misunderstandings about our attitude to machine translation. Everybody uses machine translation like Google Translate but we should know its capacity. We can not use it for important texts or for texts including culture-specific phrases. Other than these, we can use machine translation to simply get the “gist” of a document.  

For Latin or Germanic languages, using machine translation can work to get a general idea about the text; however, it is not the same for other language pairs. My mother tongue is Turkish. My second language is English and I know a little bit French and Spanish. I confess that, I myself use Google Translate for my French homeworks from time to time but it “always” needs double check. During translation, I use English-French language pair because Turkish-French is such a disaster. That’s to say, machine translation works (of course not 100%) when it comes to similar language families. Although Turkish uses Latin alphabet, the sentence structure is different.

Now let’s check out some facts about Google Translate. Thanks John Bunch for listing these facts in his article titled “Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Google Translate”, which is kind of descriptive what we are faced with 🙂 


  • The head of Google Translate is a German. His name is Franz Ochs, and he is an expert in computers and language. He now works in Mountain View, Google’s home base in the Bay Area of California, but he is originally from Germany. He studied in Germany and California and was later asked by the U.S. government for help after 9/11, but he went to work at Google.
  • One main goal of Google Translate is to empower non-native speakers of English. Let’s face it, 70% of the Internet sites in the world are written in English, with American English being particularly dominant. If you are a teenager in China or Mali or Brazil, maybe you have not mastered English yet, but want to read certain websites. Google Translate is designed to help you figure out, in an instant, what a website is about.
  • Google uses as its source text four main things: Biblical texts (the Bible has been translated into every language known to man), texts from the United Nations (UN), and texts from The European Union (EU). This might be one reason that GT does a better job with European languages, than with non-European langauges. Another main source is – surprisingly – mystery novels. For this reason, Google Translate produces relatively decent legal and diplomatic texts. And if you want a chunk of a John Grisham novel translated, it can probably do that too.
  • Google translate does not “think”, it uses a statistical approach. From that point of view, it really – in my view – is not that different from a CAT (computer-assisted) tool. In fact, Google Translate, as I mentioned, is often used directly with a CAT tool, and it is a decent tool.
  • Google Translate is amazingly bad at simple German syntax. It really is quite awful (I am speaking from personal observation here).
  • Google uses English as a “pivot”. A pivot is a node through which everything else flows. For instance, if you use Google Translate to translate from Greek to Norwegian, Google Translate will not match Greek source text with Norwegian target text. Instead, it matches Greek with English and then English with Norwegian. English is used as a kind of “lingua franca” or intermediate language for the tool.
  • Franz Ochs, the head of Google Translate, has admitted on more than one occasion, that he does not use the tool much at all ! But he did use it on a trip to Japan, to translate menus.
  • Google has human translators do its own translations. It does not use its own tool (thanks to David Bellos for that insight).
  • Google Translate is helping preserve some endangered languages. Dialects of Maori that are no longer spoken, etc.
  • There are confidentiality issues – for translators and translation companies – in using Google Translate ! Think about it: you are feeding your client’s confidential source text into a machine that holds it “forever” and is available then to “the world”, i.e. everyone. Few think about this, I am sure.
  • Ochs thinks that improvements will continue in the tool, but admits he does not know where the tool’s limits are.
  • Google is fighting a battle – whether it knows it or not – against prescriptivism, the idea that there is a “right” way to speak, defined by pre-set rules (a view for instance that is very strong in France and in other countries). Rather than rules, it looks for how language is actually being used, “on the street”, so to say (closer to the German way of lexicography).
  • You can set your website so that it won’t be translated by Google Translate.
  • Good translators often Google Translate instead of a dictionary. One experienced patent translator said he does it “When I get lazy”.


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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by sara0902 on April 4, 2012 at 21:41

    Reblogged this on theBabbleofBabel and commented:
    Really nice article about Google Translate…


  2. Posted by Liv Bliss on April 5, 2012 at 17:57

    Interesting, informative stuff here, but…“When I get lazy”? I use it when I need a giggle break, but that probably has a lot to do with the subject areas I handle. I will use it professionally when it gets a whole lot better or, before that happens, when I feel like committing professional suicide.

    Or, as Google Translate would say in… errr… French: Intéressant, des trucs d’information ici, mais … “Quand je deviens paresseux”? Je l’utilise quand je besoin d’une pause rire, mais qui a probablement beaucoup à voir avec les domaines que je manipulent. Je vais l’utiliser professionnellement quand il fait beaucoup mieux ou, avant cela, quand j’en ai envie de commettre un suicide professionnel.

    Liv Bliss


  3. Yes, but when you try this google tool to translate English into French, or even the contrary, there are a lot of syntactic mistakes in word order (i.e. adjective or relative pronouns whch are not correctly positionned) and about one in tenth of the lexicon is jut word to word translation. I think this translation engine can’t express the meaning of words in context, only a human being can do it through its own basic processing learnt in his socio-linguistic environment.


  4. Posted by Lilian B on April 12, 2012 at 12:33

    Google Translate is great to translate some gossip articles for your own pleasure, just to get the gist of it. It might be great to translate menus, although you may get a piece of young stake instead of veal, in some countries. I cannot understand how any professional translator or a translation company would ever use it for anything else.


  5. A beautiful article pinpointing the drawbacks of google translate or any translation tool as such.


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