Would you trust a machine translator to tell your story?
Machines are much better than humans, right? They don’t let emotions get in the way and they execute tasks in a timely manner.
Of course, machines are not without their own errors.
One popular AI translator, Google Translate, has plenty of experience with making errors.
For myself and my husband, Google was el viejo confiable when we first met.
Our dependence on machine translation had hilarious consequences (more on that later). If I was arguing with Javier I preferred Google Translate over humans because machines don’t gossip. Still, I’ll always prefer talking to a real person because sometimes Google Translate only made things worse (more on that later).
Language learners or even businesses should not depend on machine translators. In fact, we should focus on breaking up with them!
Google Translate serves as a resource, albeit an unreliable one, that functions more like a pair of training wheels than a road to language acquisition or localization.
In other words, Google Translate will not help you speak Spanish effectively. It won’t help you sound like a native speaker either.
I know this because I had to translate my husband’s hardship letter for his visa. The translation that Google Translate provided us was “correct” but we lost Javier’s voice. We didn’t need a word-for-word replication but a story that would show why my husband needs to stay in the United States with his family.
If I wouldn’t trust Google Translate to tell my husband’s story, why would I trust it to help me learn a language? More importantly, why should anyone rely on it?
Before we take Google Translate to the chopping block, let’s see what makes it so attractive (and unattractive) in the first place. Clearly it has some qualities that’s luring people into its deceptively understanding arms!
What is Google Translate?
Launched in April 2008, Google Translate has come a long way in connecting people and overcoming language barriers.
It started out as an application that conducted translations in only a few languages. Now translates 103 languages. My sister-in-law uses its tap and translate feature when we chat on Facebook. Word Lens can translate text on the spot with a camera. Pretty neat, right? It’s run into some issues, however.
Gender bias (in languages such as Spanish, Italian, and Turkish) is one of its issues. Users have argued that Google Translate associates words like “beautiful” or “nurse” with femininity while “doctor,” gets treated as a masculine word.
Accuracy, another issue, changes with the language pairing. Not only that, but slang does not always compute. Even if Spanish and English sometimes exhibit similar sentence structures or words, Google may not always know what to use. The phrase “no mames” literally translates as “don’t suck” but it means “you’re kidding” or “stop playing around.” Google has no accurate translation for it. ¡No mames, Google!
Some businesses rely on Google Translate because it has little to no cost. Although affordable translation services exist, a free machine translator shows more appeal. I have used Google Translate for localization and transcreation but I’ve found that consulting a person provides me better confidence in my content.
My husband and in-laws aren’t always accessible so I have found myself relying on Google Translate for translating Facebook or Instagram posts. Translating verbatim isn’t terrifying. Trying to add flare to my words is. As I have mentioned before, I prefer making mistakes over pursuing perfection but mistakes are avoidable if I consult a native speaker.
What Makes Google Translate a Deal Breaker?
The day after a silly argument I had with Javier, he sent me a text asking, “¿Ya no estás molesta?”
Google translated it as, “Are you still annoying?”
Not the kind of question you want to hear after a fight.
When I isolated the word “molesta,” Google gave me “angry.” So I put two and two together and responded, “No, I’m not angry anymore.” To which Javier replied, “Good, I’m glad you’re not annoying anymore!”
I went on there recently and perhaps some user feedback helped clear up that error because it translates without the term “annoying.” That instance was still a red flag for me. Just one wrong word could completely change the tone of a sentence. In my case, I knew something was wrong, but not every two way conversation may flow so easily.
Although Google Translate Cannot Translate Context or Nuance
You don’t have to watch the whole video to get the point these native speakers make. They have to struggle and consult their memory to understand what Google Translated has dished out. The examples range from extreme to every day. It’s worth taking a look at!
It Doesn’t Translate Humor
Memes in Spanish, or even bilingual memes, employ a level of creativity that machines do not have. Wordplay, in particular, could be considered one of the best human verification tests since CAPTCHA. It may not be enough to just know the language to get to the punchline. Therefore, plugging and chugging words into Google Translate may not get the results you need to get a laugh.
Take the “soy milk” meme for example:
If one entered “soy milk” into the English and Spanish language pairing, Google Translate will give you “I am milk.” So the meme here is actually not that difficult. Let’s use a more layered example.
Not only does the text here defy conventional spelling for words in Spanish, but this funny meme nods at the idiom, “the shrimp who sleeps gets carried away by the current,” or in Spanish, “el camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente.”
Google Translate understands “I’m going to sleep” but it won’t translate “aiuda,” which is a misspelling of “ayuda,” or “help.” Even if you get the phrases, “I’m going to sleep,” and “help me,” you’d be left with a very confusing story and no laughs. Google won’t tell you about the idiom, but it will translate it for you!
That’s not enough, Google! I want you to teach and translate!
If Google Translate has taught me anything, it’s that not every word or phrase in a language has an equivalent in another language. Untranslatable words exist. A machine can convey words but people convey culture.
Well, Google Translate is not going to do that. You have to decide to either learn some real Spanish or invest in getting some actual assistance. I don’t mean Google Assistant, either.
Alternatives to Google Translate
While I was on the rebound after breaking things off with Google Translate, I found online dictionaries like Linguee, which includes real-life text and human translations. Its corresponding machine translator, DeepL, has some similarities to Google Translate but offers more suggestions. Which suggestions work? That depends on you.
What about larger translation projects? In that case, I recommend seeking out an actual translator. Talk to someone who understands what you’re trying to convey. Don’t rely on a machine to interpret your words. It will never interpret anything the way you want it to no matter how much you train it.
Can We Still Be Friends with Google Translate?
Yes and no. It’s time to define your limits. Don’t be afraid to test your knowledge! If what you’re trying to get translated has more complexity than a simple conversation, reach out to someone who can assess the situation.
What if investing in a translator still seems a bit much?
There are always open communities where native speakers or more advanced language learners can help! Reddit’s Translator page accepts translation requests. In my experience, going on social media platforms like Instagram can connect you with people who are more than happy to help you translate. A translator and a language partner! Two birds, one stone.
Have you ever used Google Translate to tell a story? Stop scrolling to the end of posts so you can hit “see translation” and get the confidence to pick up Spanish faster!