The Power of Google Translate — from the Stage to the Maternity Ward
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The Power of Google Translate — from the Stage to the Maternity Ward

The Power of Google Translate — from the Stage to the Maternity Ward


“The Search Giant has just released one of the most emotional Google Translate commercials we have seen,” reported Android Authority. We agree. While marking an impressive milestone — 100 billion words translated daily — the video is also a powerful reminder of how translation and translation tools have shaped how we connect with friends, family, and colleagues around the world.

All the World is a Stage

Google Translate has also shaped how we play.

Lots of us have spent time amusing ourselves by making Google Translate back-translate its own output. Translate a favorite quotation, joke, passage, or slogan from English into another language, then re-translate it back into English, maybe after a few stops through other languages. Because of the intricate differences between languages, the results can be impressive, confusing, or downright funny. One writer called it the Google Translate Telephone Game.

Otso Huopaniemi, a Finnish playwright, saw this as an opportunity for artistic expression. He ran the full original Finnish text of his play An ABZ Of Love through Google Translate, rendering it in English, then transformed the output back into Finnish. Then, he translated the results into English once more, and back again, over and over.

Eventually, this gave rise to performances using the text altered by many passes through the Google Translate software. In love.abz, four different casts of actors use live machine translation to “explore the fragility of language, of understanding, of our ongoing relationship with machines, and [question] the notion of authorship as well,” according to an announcement for an April performance at Columbia University. An introductory video published by Mr. Huopaniemi — also a teacher at Columbia — says that the aim of the piece is to answer the question of what happens when humans are asked to work with machines to write drama. Having been staged in different locales around the world, the performance has grown to encompass different languages, and each performance forms a new link in the chain.



From Amusing to Life-Saving

This is just one novel use of Google Translate’s ever-improving machine translation technology. One less-serious example: A few years ago, enterprising users discovered that if you set Google Translate to translate from German to German, entered certain letter combinations, and clicked “Listen,” Google Translate would “beatbox”, or create percussion sounds, like certain hip-hop performers do with their voices. (This no longer works, but you can still enjoy a YouTube video of the beatbox results.)

Singer Malinda Kathleen Reese aims for humor, as well. She plays the “telephone game” with popular songs including “Bohemian Rhapsody” and music from Disney films. It’s amusing, but it also illustrates the fact that because of grammar and vocabulary complications, machine translation tools can have trouble preserving the sense of a text during translation.

Outside the arts and Internet culture, of course, Google Translate is used worldwide, every day, in attempts at practical communication. Some examples of novel uses:

  • According to the Huffington Post, a rural Mississippi couple credits Google Translate with easing their adoption of their orphaned Chinese daughter.
  • Teachers are using Google Translate to explain tricky subjects, provide context in students’ mother tongues, find texts to translate from students’ native languages into the target language, and help generate ideas for projects to be completed in the language of instruction.
  • A paramedic team in Ireland used the service to translate between English and Swahili so they could deliver the baby of a Congolese woman.

New Frontiers

With its 2015 edition, the Google Translate app introduced two features that, not long ago, would have seemed straight out of science fiction: immediate translation of text in images and consecutive machine interpretation of speech.

Thanks to Google’s acquisition of Quest Visual last year, and integration of the company’s Word Lens functionality, users of the latest version of the Google Translate app enjoy visual translation. They simply point their devices’ cameras at small pieces of text on images and, when the image shows up on-screen, see the text in context in the specified target language. (Handy if you’re, say, in a foreign country and need to translate a road sign.)

And when talking with someone who uses a different language, a user can tap the microphone icon within the app, and Google Translate will automatically detect the speakers’ languages and interpret back and forth. (It only works when a speaker of French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, or Spanish is conversing with an English-speaker, for now — Google plans to expand language support.)

You can see all of the functionality in the new commercial, below. Do you have your own stories of Google Translate? Share it in the comments!