A few days ago, I was discussing my work as a translator with a friend of mine. After going through the general details of what I do, he asked: “So, why don’t your clients just use Google Translate?”
It’s a question that I’m sure many translators have faced before, and I doubt it will be the last time I hear it. It wasn’t meant to be an insult to our profession (nor was it taken as one), but rather seems to reflect a common general perception of translation. As it was based on a genuine interest in what I do and highlighted an important issue, I wanted to give a clear, convincing answer.
Naturally, I started out with the typical translator’s response: “It just doesn’t work in many cases, it trips up on verbs, word order, everything really, and it doesn’t take account of the context.” Yet I could see that he wasn’t satisfied, he wanted concrete info.
I continued. “Think of an English word like ‘set’. It can mean so many different things. We can play a set of tennis, we can set up a business, set ourselves up for a long night of translating… Obviously, other languages don’t have the same word for all those meanings and Google Translate can’t always catch the right one.”
Still slightly unconvinced, at this point the conversation drifted onto something else and I went away feeling that I didn’t make my point quite as clearly as I could’ve done. As such, I decided to see if I could come up with a few examples here to demonstrate a few of the limitations of Google Translate.
I’m not going to go to the extremes of using examples that have gone catastrophically wrong, there are plenty of posts that do that. Instead, I want to show that, despite its many strengths and its rapid improvement in recent years, Google Translate won’t be replacing professional translators any time soon.
First up, how about a nice French proverb like “le monde appartient à ceux qui se lèvent tôt” [literally: the world belongs to those who get up early]?
Google gets this literal rendition spot on. But what does that actually mean? Though French speakers will be familiar with the world belonging to them when they get up nice and early, it won’t strike a chord with an English ear. However, if you were to say “the early bird catches the worm”, your Anglophone audience would certainly catch your drift.
Or what about the lovely (if slightly obscure) French phrase “c’est fromage et dessert” [literally: it’s cheese and dessert] that I recently had to tackle in translation?
It seems simple at first glance, it’s just a pair of common nouns. But this wasn’t a translation of a menu or something similar as you might expect. Instead, it was an article on university education in France. In this context, the phrase was used as a play on the old menu choice of “fromage ou dessert” [cheese or dessert] that invites diners to choose one or the other at the end of a meal.
In using “et” [and] instead of “ou” [or], it highlights that, whereas normally you have to make a choice between the two, in this situation you can enjoy each of two normally opposed options.
Putting the phrase through Google Translate, we’re left clueless as to its meaning in this context with a literal rendering of “it is cheese and dessert”.
When translating the phrase myself I opted for an English version reading “it’s a case of having your cake and eating it”, recreating both this idea of combining two seemingly opposing choices as well as the culinary allusions contained in the French.
Both of these examples highlight a huge problem with Google Translate, it simply can’t handle idiomatic language. The same can be said of rhetoric, style, humour, and many other important facets of language that are tough even for a professional translator.
Finally, here’s an example from another text I worked on a while back. This time I thought I’d go all out and give an excerpt from the French text, a Google-translated version and the published English version to show the discrepancies.
The article in question offered a round-up of the sprinting events at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and the excerpt used is taken from the opening paragraph, which summarises a few of the highlights from the competition.
I’ve deliberately chosen an example where it was possible for the published version to remain very close to the French to show that even when a fairly literal rendering would suffice in English, Google Translate still isn’t up to the task (despite faring pretty well).
The problems are fairly clear to see, but I’ve highlighted a few personal favourites.
Avec un nouveau triplé 100 m-200 m-4 x 100 m, Usain Bolt a définitivement cimenté à Rio sa légende de plus grand sprinter de tous les temps. Le Sud-Africain Wayde van Niekerk a fait sensation en battant un record du monde vieux de 17 ans sur 400 m, Elaine Thompson, la compatriote d’Usain Bolt, a réalisé le doublé 100 m-200 m, tandis que l’Américaine Allyson Felix est devenue la femme la plus titrée de l’histoire en athlétisme.
With a new triple 100 m-200 m-4 x 100 m, Usain Bolt has definitely cemented in Rio its legend of the biggest sprinter of all time. The South African Wayde van Niekerk made a sensation by beating a 17-year-old world record over 400m, Usain Bolt’s compatriot Elaine Thompson scored 100m-200m, while American Allyson Felix became the most titled woman in history in athletics.
In the men’s sprinting events in Rio, Usain Bolt claimed three more golds to cement his status as the greatest sprinter of all time and South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk broke a 17-year-old world record in the 400m. In the women’s competitions, Bolt’s compatriot Elaine Thompson took a sprint double in the 100m and 200m while Allyson Felix of the United States became the most-decorated female athlete of all time.
Ultimately, Google Translate is a great resource for certain purposes. It works pretty well in many cases and you can often get the gist in the examples above.
If all you need is that gist, then that’s fine. However, when you’re looking for a flowing, polished translation that always makes sense, don’t just assume that Google will do the job, get yourself a pro!
All that remains now is for me to print off this post and make it into a neat little handout to give to the next person who asks “Why not just use Google Translate?”
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