What is Google Translate
Google Translate is a free online translation tool that allows users to translate words or even entire web pages into different languages. The Google Translate tool uses a revolutionary statistical analysis algorithm to determine the meaning of words, in context and in relation to the other words next to it.
Google Translate can be used to translate a foreign language into English, or English into a foreign language. It can also be used to translate from one foreign language to another such as Spanish to Chinese. All of the major world languages are represented including ones with very few users such as Esperanto or Latin.
What's Different About Google Translate?
Google Translate offers a number of useful options that set it apart from other online translation services such as Babelfish or Bing. But you need to understand how Google Translate works in order to get the most out of it.
The first thing to understand is that Google Translate is not a dictionary and it is not, strictly speaking, a translation software. So what is it?
Google Translate uses a radically different approach than other online dictionaries or translators. Most dictionaries, allow you to look up words in another language and provide you with the English definition. Depending on how sophisticated the database is, you may be able to look up different forms of the word (such as the plural) or you may need to know the root word in order to find the definition. Online translators build on this concept by applying a few grammatical rules so that if you type in a sentence in a foreign language it will give you a (somwhat) grammatical English equivalent. The same is also true in reverse: if you want to translate English into another foreign language, other online translators will look up the words and then translate them into their foreign equivalent.
The fundamental weakness of every online language translator prior to Google Translate is that the programs could not for the most part pick the equivalent word that best fits the context, because context was irrelevant to the translated output. Most online translation tools pick the translated word based on its primary meaning, but words can have many different meanings depending on context. So without knowing the context of the original word, the results were often nonsensical.
The Google Translator
How Google Translate is Different from Other Translation Tools
Google Translate solves the problem of context by applying statistical analysis. Its database records the most frequent occurrence of certain words based not just in a particular sentence but in the entire web page or block of text being translated.
When faced with the task of translating the word "fire" from English into another language, this could mean "to dismiss someone" or it could be a noun, referring to burning, or it could be a verb meaning to "set fire to something". The context of the word in its original surroundings will determine its most probable meaning. So if the word "fire" is preceeded by the word "set", such as in the phrase "to set fire", Google Translate knows that it is likely referring to making something burn rather than dismissing someone from their employment because the word "set" is never used when referring to a dismissal. It is not clear to what extent Google Translate looks at the greater context of the word but I have noticed that the translated results of various snippets of text are different if they are included in a larger block of text to be translated, which leads me to the conclusion that Google Translate is going beyond the immediate sentence fragment and is also looking at the context of the entire block of text. However, more is not always better and I have noticed that if you include too large a block of text then the results often don't make sense. One paragraph at a time seems to work best.
Weaknesses With Google Translate
Although the Google Translator is very good, especially for something that is free and very easy to use, it does have its limitations. This is a list of some of its key weaknesses:
- Google Translation does not do a good job with complex sentences that use the passive voice. An example of a sentence using the passive voice: "she was struck by a car" instead of "the car struck her"
- Metaphors and poetic language in a foreign language sometimes lead to Engrish sounding direct word for word translations that do not capture the true meaning of the original
- Google translate does not always translate gender correctly. The translation seems to assume that the subject of the action is male, even where the context clearly indicates otherwise. For example, here is a piece of Italian text from Wikipedia about Julia Mesa, an important Roman woman who lived during the Roman Empire.
A seguito dell'ascesa al trono del cognato Settimio Severo, marito della sorella Giulia Domna, Mesa si trasferì a Roma a vivere con la sorella.
Google translates the passage as follows. Note the last part of the sentence which states that Mesa when to Rome to live with "his" sister. Whose sister? Septimus's sister?
In fact, Google's translation is not correct. The original Italian text states that after her (Mesa's) sister's husband became Emeperor, Mesa went to live with her sister Julia, not "his sister".
- Using Google translate is difficult if the language uses accented letters. Unless you have a special keyboard you will not be able to type the word correctly. One solution is to copy and paste from the original website, in order to import the accent marks
- If you misspell a word in the original language or if the word you are trying to translate is not in its database, which sometimes happens with slang or neologisms, then Google will simply repeat the word verbatim in the output box. It does not warn you that it was not able to translate the word. This may lead to confusion and the mistake of thinking that an English word is used in a foreign language. Since many English words have been adopted by foreign languages, it is not to uncommon for the translation to output the same word as what you inputted because it is spelled exactly the same in the other language. The problem is that Google translate does not differentiate between situations where the word is the same in both languages, and where it simply could not translate the word.
Getting the Most Out of Google Translate
Despite is limitations, Google Translate is an amazingly fast, versatile and mainly accurate translation tool. To get the most out of it, I suggest that you do the following:
- Use Google translate as a help with translating difficult passages or words from a foreign language into English, and not the other way around. When you use it to translate text into a language you speak fluently, you will be able to tell if the output makes sense or if the grammar is nonsensical. If you use Google Translate to convert English into another language you do not know, you may get completely nonsensical results, but because you do not speak the target language, you will have no way of knowing.
- If accuracy is important, try translating the same text using other online translation programs to compare the different translations. Sometimes Google comes up with the best translation and sometimes it doesn't. Comparing translations will give you an opportunity to arrive at the true meaning.
- If translating a specific word click on the "listen" icon to hear how that word sounds in the foreign language. The word is machine-read so the pronunciation is not quite right, but is fairly close in most cases, and certainly beats the confusing pronunciation symbols found in most dictionaries
- You can translate an entire web page by pasting the URL into the input box. The translation will retain the active links found in the original page and you can click on the links and receive an instant translation of the target page
- Sometimes you cannot tell what language a text is written in. Google translate has a feature called "detect language" which will figure out what language the text is written in and then translate it into your desired language. The detect language feature is not foolproof however, especially when the unknown language is a dialect or very similar to another language (for example Catalan and Spanish)
Robert P (author) from Canada on November 26, 2011:
Hi Michelle - In some cases Google will get it right if the context of the English phrase makes the meaning of "you" unmistakable. It will all depend on the rest of the sentence. In all other cases, Google's translation service will default to the singular, so you will have to tweak the translation and fix it. This is not too bad if you know enough Spanish to spot the mistake, and then correct Google's mistake, but anyone relying entirely on Google translate for a correct translation is going to be in trouble.
michele on November 25, 2011:
The points and tips in this article are excellent.
I LOVE Google Translate and often use it to translate text from Spanish to English and vice versa. But the main problem I always run into is with the English word 'you' - since it is the same when addressing one person or two or more people, Google Translate always translate the sentence as if the pronoun is singular, when the sentence or question is actually referring to more than one person. Anyone know of a way around this? Is it possible to 'trick' Google Translate into translating 'you' (plural) phrases properly?
surf traveler on September 30, 2010:
Wow, I use Google translate often, but didn't realize how different it was by using contextual translations.