Google Translate sucks (and other lies we tell ourselves)
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Google Translate sucks (and other lies we tell ourselves)

Google Translate sucks (and other lies we tell ourselves)

A couple of days ago, a colleague sent around a link to an online map. Check it out, he said. So I did, being a dare-to-click, curious type. Well, someone who was pretty clever with the Google Translate API had set up a map so that a site visitor, typing in no more than a word or two, could quickly see how that word translates into the other languages of the world. Check out the screenshot below. Cool, right?


WRONG, shouted one of our other colleagues in reply to the same mail. She knew I was considering writing up a quick blog about it, so she’s okay with me quoting her here.

“Consider the example word: train. A train? As in a vehicle of transportation. Or to train? That is, to educate someone on a topic or around a theme. Change the last letter and you get trail. A trail? A path or way. Or to trail? Which is to follow someone. Perhaps you could blog about the importance of context to translation, regardless of location.”

All about context

This take is usually among the first lines of argument that folks in our industry roll out when someone is praising the utility of Google Translate. You can also hear them sigh with frustration. And, you know what? They’re right. Context matters. Context is the start and stop button to conversation.

It’s why something like “you dog!” can mean an affectionate jab in the ribs from your mates about how you were flirting at the pub and a relationship-ending accusation when you return home to the wife.

It’s why “brb” and “cu l8tr” can’t be found in the average dictionary but nevertheless litters online chat windows all over the world.

It’s why “honey” is both an endearment and an item on the grocery list.

It’s also why, yes, professional translation still very much matters and, yes, why a simple map display — using the most limited functionality of the entire Google Translate API, mind you — doesn’t work for business.

Why context doesn’t matter here

But we’re not talking business. Let’s face it, simple translation tools like these are fun for the average user.

Is your kid curious about what Santa Claus is called in Thailand? Well, we have an infographic for that, but one click on a map is probably going to make Little Junior a whole lot happier.

Want to send “love” to that hot Italian guy you met on your Eat-Pray-Love vacation? A tool like this will scratch that itch.

Is it going to answer your needs for the translation of a press release of major political importance. No. Let me repeat that. No. And there are plenty of news examples for why it’s no, no, and no again.

Nevertheless, the Google Translate site gets a gazillion hits per day from more than 200 million users worldwide. Okay, that hits number is an exaggeration, but the user number also doesn’t even approach the number who are otherwise using Google Translate’s resources off site.

Frankly, there’s a communication need that this tool fulfills. Rather than focusing on its limitations we’re better off for seeing that. And for contributing to that so that its usage, adaptation, and correction can continue to serve us all.

And, hey, don’t forget, there are guides for how to use Google Translate so that you can get the best of what it has to offer. Dare yourself to click!