Why not just use Google Translate?

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.

French text

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.

Google’s version

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.

Published translation

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?”



The Joys of Working From Home

Earlier today, during a spontaneous mid-morning break from my work, I found myself questioning whether or not, after several years of working almost exclusively from home as a freelance translator and researcher, I could go back to working in the ‘real world’ of offices, 9-5 and all that jazz.

While the obvious answer is yes, of course I could, it struck me that the longer I’ve been working from home, the more certain I’ve become that the transition back would be a slow, painful one.

From the freedom to take mid-morning breaks that lead to blog posts like this to the increased productivity associated with working in such a tailored environment, working from home has played a huge part in my personal development.

With that in mind, here are ten conclusions that I’ve drawn based on my adventure so far (with tongue planted firmly in cheek).

  • Family members / friends will never quite understand that ‘at home’ does not equate to ‘doing nothing and likely to be grateful for a call/surprise visit’.
  • Lengthy conversations with pets are entirely normal.
  • My clothing habits have gone beyond the point of no return and I’m OK with that.

  • Caffeine can be used to solve most work-related issues.
  • At this point, my own personal schedule has become so deeply engrained that having to adhere to anybody else’s timekeeping rules would most probably cause my brain to cease functioning.
  • The degradation of social skills is a very real thing.

  • With the vast majority of communication revolving around email conversations, it is essential to become adept at utilising subtle variations in tone, from the ‘I’m really not happy’ staccato sentences to the all-powerful smiley face.
  • These days, anyone complaining about their dreaded commute is automatically met with a smug inward grin as I picture my five-second saunter from bed to office.


  • Internet connection issues are always cause for unmitigated panic.
  • My boss is pretty awesome.

Gather ’round for a story: the Haitian folktale

First of all: apologies for the lack of posts in the last couple of weeks, it’s been a busy period for me. As it is, I’m still snowed under and so this post is just a relatively quick entry based on an interesting translation project I completed a while back.

The text was a French translation of a folktale from Haiti which was itself a translation from the Creole version: the official language of Haiti along with French and the chosen language of communication with its oral nature.

One of the greatest traditions in Haitian culture, and the one that is central to this translation, is that of storytelling which, in rural areas of Haiti, is an integral part of the cultural heritage of a country where families must create their own entertainment in the evenings.

This tale shows many of the typical qualities of a Haitian folk tale: there is a use of humour that often transfers surprisingly well to English, certain fantastical elements (accounts of magic, wild beasts and even encounters with God are common, and this tale is no exception with the inclusion of a tiger: a somewhat mythical beast in Haiti as no tigers have ever been known to inhabit the country), dramatic changes in narrative linked with the improvisation of a storyteller, and finally examples of the storyteller addressing his audience directly.

Many of these features will undoubtedly seem unusual to a reader unfamiliar with the underlying context but the insight that they offer into a completely different culture is fascinating.

In the translation, I tried to embrace this sense of strangeness by using unfamiliar syntactical formations that often mirror Creole word order and phraseology as well as using ideas from Appiah’s article ‘Thick Translation’ (well worth a read!), which suggests using annotations and glosses to locate the text in a rich cultural and linguistic context. Well, enough already, here it is: the story of the riddle solver and the child. Enjoy!

The Riddle Solver and the Child.

There was once a man who had three sacks of money. He walked, posing riddles, searching for somebody capable of posing him a riddle that he couldn’t solve and to whom he would hand over the money. He went everywhere.

One day he heard about a woman who had a child very good at posing riddles; that is why the child saw a man approaching who had three bags on his back. Upon arriving, the man said hello to the child; the child replied and the man immediately asked,

“My child, can you get me a little ‘kras’[1] of water?”

“A little ‘kras’ of water, my uncle[2]?”

“Yes, my child.”

When he said yes, the child went into the house. There were two buckets full of water; he decanted all of the water in the containers and, when he had finished, he took the ‘kras’ and carried it to the man.

“Oh! My child! I asked you for a little ‘drop’ of water and that is ‘kras’ that you bring me isn’t it?”

“No, my uncle, you didn’t ask me for water, you asked me for some ‘kras’ of water, I gave you some ‘kras’ of water.”

“Well, ok! I asked you for a little bit of water.”

“Ok. Now you’ve asked me for water my uncle.”

The child left. He took another glass and gave him good water. When the man finished drinking, he said,

“My child, let me tell you what brings me here. I am travelling the world (at this point he puts the bags on the ground and shows them to the child). These bags, that you see, are full of money. This money could be yours, as, if I find somebody capable of posing me some riddles that I cannot solve, I will give him the money.”

The child then said to him,

“My uncle, if you have come seeking riddles, mama isn’t here, papa isn’t here, but I can pose you some.”

The man agreed and added,

“My child, let’s start. So, where is your mother?”

“Mama? My uncle! Mama has gone to seek what she didn’t sow.”

The man remained quiet. Then he said,

“Ok! And your father?”

“Papa left before day break. He has gone to dig a hole, to fill a hole, but the hole is still gaping.”

“Ok! Did I not see that you have a big brother too? Where has he gone?”

“Oh, this morning, papa sent my brother out hunting. All the game that he finds, he must leave; and all the game that he doesn’t find, he must bring back.”

They remained still.

The man didn’t know how to reply to the child. He said,

“Well, my child, I can’t see a single response to give you, I’m going to give you the bags of money.”

The child agreed. The man took the three bags of money and gave them to the child, who said to him,

“You can sit down; when I come back, I’ll tell you the answers.”

The child took the money. The man saw him go back into the bedroom (the child had the time to go further than Fanise’s house, in the distance over there, to hide his money). A moment passed before he came back through the door by which he had left. Upon his return, he sat down and said,

“Uncle, you don’t know the answers; let me give them to you.

You asked me where mama was? I told you that mama had gone to fetch what she didn’t sow! You have to know that mama is a midwife, you understand? When someone has their first labour pains, they send for mama, but mama is never there when the people make a child.”

The man took a paper from his pocket, noted the riddle and then said,

“And your father?”

“Papa? This morning, since papa owed somebody money, he went to borrow some money from another person to be able to pay it back; but in actual fact, papa is still in debt, no matter what he does.”

“Ah! It’s true! Good, and your brother?”

“My Brother? My brother had lots of jiggers[3] on his feet. Therefore, papa sent him to the river to wash his feet and remove all of the jiggers that he found. But all the jiggers that he didn’t see, he would bring back, and all of those that he saw, he would leave in the water.”

“Well. My child, you are very skilled.”

After a pause, he added,

“My child, it’s finished, I’ve exhausted the subject. I’ll go.”

The child let him leave.

But what do you think he was doing? He went to look for a tiger and said to himself,

“When the child sees the tiger, he will be afraid and he will give my money back to me.”

But the child’s father had quite a long piece of chain in the house. The child, meanwhile, was sitting beside the fire that was burning near to the house[4].

When the child looked up, he saw the man arriving with an enormous tiger[5] (a beast so large that he could eat the child in one bite). The child didn’t move, he looked and said,

“Ah! Uncle! Papa will be angry with you, you know.”

Then he pretended to think for a second and added,

“Papa will have words with you, for I think it’s about ten months since he gave you money to bring him a beast…” (The tiger, who was approaching at top speed, stopped).

The child added,

“Of course, I know that Papa won’t take this little[6] tiger that you have brought him.” (The tiger stays still).

The child continued,

“Anyway, papa is a big person, me, I’m just a child. Also, I don’t know if, when he arrives, he will be happy or annoyed. So I’ll give you the bit of chain and you will attach the tiger.”

When the tiger saw the child approach with the bit of chain, he started to run.

The man stayed still. When the child realised that the man had remained motionless, he said to him,

“Oh! Uncle! Look! Now you have let the tiger take to the road, where will you go to?”

“Oh my stars!”

The man took to his heels. When the tiger saw the man running behind him, he believed that it was in order to catch him and he ran even faster.

The man quickened his pace as well. They ran, one chasing the other.

And that is how the tiger, followed by the man, fell into a chasm where they were both killed.

The child, meanwhile, was rich. When his father and mother came back, he said to them,

“Mama! Papa! We are rich.”

The father, surprised, asked him how and the child told him,

“A man came here with three bags of money. He came to ask me for stories, I told him some and I won his money. I’ll take you to the money.”

When the parents arrived to the place he had hidden the money, they stood speechless.

[1] In rural areas, water from ponds and rivers is put to settle with the cacti when it is too muddy. A little bit of mud is always left at the bottom of the container, called ‘kras’ in Creole. As ‘kras’ can also mean ‘a small amount’, you never ask for a ‘kras of water’ but rather a ‘drop of water’. The word ‘kras’ is reserved solely to refer to food, as it can also mean a few “crumbs”, just enough to dirty a plate.

[2] In rural areas, the child calls all men ‘uncle’ and all women ‘mother’. Children themselves are always named ‘pitit’, meaning ‘child’.

[3] ‘Jiggers’ is the nickname given to ‘chigoe fleas’. These are a type of parasite causing disease in tropical areas by burrowing into people’s feet when walking barefoot and they must be removed daily.

[4] In rural areas, especially in mountainous regions where it is quite cool, a fire permanently burns close to the house and the children warm themselves by it.

[5] There are no tigers in Haiti. In fact, ‘tiger’ is a generic term used in Haiti meaning a wild, ferocious animal of the cat family.

[6] The term ‘little’ employed here is very important. To deny the appearance of a being, whatever it may be, is to demonstrate a transcendental strength.