Google Translate is nice – above all, because it’s online and free. Like beer in a pub it helps people getting closer and makes the communication easier. But where are its limits? And are we aware of them?

You are how you translate

Popular free software solutions make quite a good job translating single words and most of the phrases. The more people speak both chosen languages, the better the result is – English and German is probably one of the most desired pairs. But what will happen if one languages is a more seldom one? Let’s say, it’s Polish.

Even if the second language is still „global“, the final effect can cause some anguish. Let’s imagine, a German wants to tell something nice to his Polish friend and wants to express it in his friend’s language. In German he would say e.g. „Du bist der Hammer“, which literally means „You’re the hammer“. This is how the translation into English looks like:

The phrase has been translated in its entirety, not as a couple of words. The translation makes sense, so that the software gave itself a tick as a sign of a well done job. It deserved it, this was a good one! Google Translate, you’re amazing!

We change the language on the right side and see:

Intelligent translation, colloquial language detected? No! Word for word? Not either! It’s worse! Right side’s content makes sense – but opposite to the wanted one. Młot (polish word for a big hammer, a handy tool is called młotek) is also a colloquial denotation of an imbecile. Thus, the German would have to hopr for his friend’s sense of humour. Now we can say: Google Translate, jesteś…

How does it work?

Google Translate is a fascinating tool to play, but playing it can also give us a lot of useful information. The analysis of its failures, especially those funniest, can help us to understand how it works. We just have to make a simple question: how did it figure this out?

There are no error messages in Google Translate. If it doesn’t know at all what to do, it just copies the text on the left side and pastes in to the right. It can also suggest to change the language. Once I tried to translate a text above the calf workout machine for a gym from German into Polish – just for fun. I got a calf machine on the right side, but time not a part of the body was meant – it was a cow’s child.

Translating is like travelling or doing business – the more stopovers or go-betweens, the higher the risk that something will go wrong. I translated from German into Polish – in none of both languages a part of the body between the knee and the ankle and a cow’s child are homonymous. This applies for English, but English wasn’t any of the selected languages! Nevertheless, Google Translate seems to be able to work only with English. So, if it translates e.g. from German to Polish, it makes a first step from German to English and then into Polish. However, making the second step it forgets what the first step was. In the case of homonymous words it’s particularly dangerous – we start in a gym and land in a cowshed.

We can observe a similar effect translating a German word Feder into Spanish:

The suggestions on the bottom of the right side are alright, but in the solution in the main window makes no sense at all. Let’s change the direction:

That’s right. So what was the problem in the first case? The English word spring, which means both a season between winter and summer (primavera, Frühling) and a machine element (resorte, Feder). There are a lot of similar examples.

Have a nice trip everyone

However, according to my experience, also people responsible for international contents of the well-known companies‘ Facebook fan pages sometimes use translation software in their work.

On the 21st of February the International Mother Language Day is held. On that day one of the leading commercial vehicle manufacturers wanted to wish their customers and fans a good trip. Everything was based on the German phrase Gute Fahrt. Polish was one of the languages used in the message – there’s no surprise, because the company’s got a few plants in Poland. Eventually, from the German Gute Fahrt they arrived at Polish…

„Dobra jazda“

Dobra = good, jazda = ride – a clean word-for-word translation, but nobody in Poland would say it this way. Of course nobody will admit what’s the origin of this phrase, but…

The most people’s favourite online translator seems to be the favourite one of the person responsible for this funny content. A few Polish fans immediately posted on the fan page requiring the correction of this text. It’s never happened.

Stressed and at high voltage? Not the technicians!

We can consider the topic yet more technically and go into the centre of technical competence, namely to the automotive development. Here there’s no space for any kind of ambiguousness. German language, especially the technical one, is pretty specific and broad. English is seldom able to reproduce this wide range of technical vocabulary.

However, the case I want to describe is rather an opposite one. I often read specifications regarding finite element simulation of the components manufactured for the leading OEMs in the automotive industry. The computation is mainly related to the stress analysis of the components or assemblies. And the stresses cause a lot of problems among the translators – both human and electronic. It’s all because of the German word Spannung, whose meaning can be the mechanical stress, but also the electric voltage.

I’ve seen a few specifications with the word voltage instead of stress in the English version. Of course it doesn’t have to be a typical software failure, even Google Translate suggests more than one solution for the German word Spannung. It’s possible that the software loses its train of thought after more phrases or sentences are entered – then it gives back the most frequent solution found in the World Wide Web. However, this time it could be a mistake made by a philologist without technical background. Obviously there is a remark that “the English version is only for information purposes and in case of any doubts the German version shall govern”. Nevertheless, if two physical quantities are confused, the risk of failure increases dramatically. In the era of e-mobility mechanical stresses and electric voltages will occur together and influence each other – both linguistically and technically. Thus, it makes sense to do something now in order to make the translations in this area fully stress-free.

To sum up: I’m going neither to laugh at Google Translate nor to blame it for anything. We are the last instance that makes the decision and we should know how far we can trust the translation software solutions. All the examples above show that even in the private issues a special attention has to be paid. And in case on any doubt it’s always advisable to make one more consultation that one less. And finally, don’t forget: the more stops between the start and the finish, the higher the failure risk. In the next stage we can forget where we were a step ago – and we can miss our target.