How reliable is Google Translate when translating into English?

Google translates over 100 billion words per day. Its automatic translation service began at a time when Chinese was not even in the list of the top 10 languages that were most frequently translated into another language. The top 10 were: English, French, Russian, German, Scandinavian languages, Italian, Greek or Latin, Spanish, Arabic and Japanese. Today, Italian, Greek/Latin and Scandinavian languages have lost their top 10 positions and have been replaced by Chinese (the third most translated language in the world), Korean and Portuguese.

Is a human translator necessarily better than Google Translate?

This illusion that GT offers a poor service is because users see the version that GT produces as being the final version. However, remember that a human translator always looks over their work; they don’t just submit their first draft. Likewise, anyone who uses GT should then subject the service’s automatic translation to a minimum of scrutiny.

GT is certainly no worse than most non-experts who translate into English. In fact, it is usually better (as are equivalent services such as Bing and DeepL).

What does Google Translate do well?

A Google translation of a text, which is then corrected by a human, will generally produce an equally or possibly more accurate technical translation than human translation + human revision. GT in fact has many advantages:

  • If used appropriately, GT is considerably quicker than a human. And of course, the longer the doc, the more this is true as it takes GT approximately the same time to translate 100 words as 100,000 words.
  • In most cases, GT chooses the correct translation of a word. 
  • GT does not usually make spelling mistakes. However, occasionally if the word in the source text is already in English, for some reason GT may modify its spelling.
  • It generally identifies the correct use of articles (including whether “the” should be omitted or not, and when “an” rather than “a” should be used) and the right prepositions.
  • It reduces some typical redundancies. For example, if the original language contained the phrase “we made a comparison”, then GT will quite often reduce this to “we compared”.
  • When writing an email, you can write it directly into GT in a mixture of your mother tongue (the parts where you’re not sure of the translation) and English (for phrases you’re 100% sure are correct). The output is then entirely in English – but obviously, you still need to check that the English is correct.

When Albert Einstein was asked how many feet there were in a mile, he replied that he didn’t stress his brainpower with things that could easily be found in a reference book (or today on the web). So why tax your brain with unnecessary routine work, such as providing the first draft of a translation, when you can do it automatically? This leaves your brain with more energy to do the most essential part – checking for accuracy. You would have to do this in any case, even if you yourself produced the first draft. This first draft by nature contains mistakes.

So what kinds of mistakes does Google Translate make?                

People’s criticism of GT is often because of some of the huge mistakes that it makes, e.g., translating people’s surnames (so Enrico Nero in Italian might become Henry Black in English). Yes, this does happen, but the mistakes are so big that they are very easy to see and correct. However, there are some mistakes that are more difficult to spot.

GT’s dictionaries are huge, but do not cover absolutely every word. If GT doesn’t know a word, it will normally leave it in the original language. Although GT generally chooses the most appropriate technical word, it has some problems with more generic words that have several meanings. So you need to check that the meaning in your language corresponds to what GT has translated. 

GT tends to get tenses correct, but depending on the source language, it has some difficulty with putting the words in the right order, i.e., the position of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. If in your language, you put the verb before its subject, or if you put an indirect object before the direct object, then GT will not be able to create the correct English order (i.e., the reverse of the order in your language). 

One key issue is with uncountable nouns. An uncountable noun is a noun that cannot have the ‘s’ plural and cannot be preceded by a/an or one. For example, evidence is uncountable in English, though it is countable in most other languages. This means you cannot say an evidence, one evidence, two evidences, several evidences. The problem is that it is not only the noun itself that needs to be correctly translated, but also the words that come before and after it (even much later in the sentence). If in your language, you write: 

These evidences indicate that x = y; in fact, they show that ...

then potentially, GT will mistranslate all the words that are governed by evidence (i.e., the ones underlined in the sentence above). The correct version should be:

This evidence indicates that x = y; in fact, it shows that ...

Moral of the story: when GT has done its job, your job begins. You need to:

i) check the translation of more common words,

ii) check the subject comes before the verb, and that adjectives come before the noun that they describe,

iii) check concordance (e.g., that a singular noun has a singular pronoun associated with it).

Finally, be careful how you use Google Translate

Three important notes:

  • Never use GT to check the accuracy of a sentence you have written in English – it is a translation tool; it cannot do what TextRanch does!
  • GT is likely to translate better from your language into English than the other way round. So don’t judge the accuracy of GT from its translations from English into your mother tongue. 
  • All automatic translating software works considerably better with technical documents. If you have a non-technical doc – a joke, a friendly email, the lyrics from a song, an essay on a philosophical topic – then GT does not do a great job.

What can you do to ensure that your Google Translation is good?

If you want to validate the translation provided by Google Translate and you do not master English as your mother tongue, you can consider just a few options:

  1. Refer to a native English speaker among your friends or colleagues and ask them to check your text. As you imagine, this is not always possible!
  2. Use TextRanch: you can simply copy/paste your translated text on TextRanch’s website and real human editors will correct it for you and provide the error-free version within a few minutes. This is the choice of more than 100,000 users every month.

Furthermore, you can consider practicing your English and following some online lessons to improve your writing.

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