If only Google Translator were the answer!

When people ask about my work as a translator, and I tell them a little about the challenges of understanding a text (ie as the writer intended it to be understood) and then rendering that text into comparable English, I am sometimes regaled with the following startlingly “new” revelation: “Why don’t you use Google Translator?” After all, you’ve only to copy and paste the text, and Google will do the rest for you………….

In response, let me use a little bit of archaic English grammar to express an exhortation: “Would that it were that easy!”. If it were, every translator would be out of work in a trice. Google Translator is an excellent tool for a casual, superficial understanding of a text. I use it for languages that are completely outside my spectrum of understanding. But to make use of it as a professional translator……….well, let me demonstrate some of its limitations with a few short texts that I have recently translated.

(My version) Through personal pride, minor faults that affect others are blown out of proportion; whereas, by

My dad’s like, this big deal interpreter, whatever,
but he, like, yuh know, doesn’t understand a thing I say.
(Cartoon by Tony Beckwith)

contrast, more grievous personal faults tend to be played down and justified.

(Google version) We pride staff, smaller faults that affect others are increased, whereas, by contrast, tend to own larger defects decreased and justified

(My version) While it is certainly true that doubt is a human trait that dogs our heels

(Google version) While that certainly is a human element that accompanies us

(My version) Whoever can be trusted in little things can also be trusted in great ones.

(Google version) For only he who is faithful in Petite things can be big things

I think you might agree, there is still room for professional translators on this planet!


About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on May 18, 2012, in Life of a translator and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. You can say that again! I have been known to use google translator when I forget a few words in a language that is clearly not mine – and sometimes I get a response that basically says – say it in English!!!! I use google translator occasionally for french – but more so to get the spelling and accents. I have been known to alter the translation! French is not my first language – but I can pick out some mistakes.

    • Yes, Anita, like most ‘gadgets’ in the world of technology, it’s a mixed blessing. Vital at one level, but infuriatingly inadequate at another.

  2. peter staples

    The best piece of translationese I ever saw (and I don’t for a minute think it was Google because this was in China in 2002) was on the toilet door on the night train from Beijing to Xian.

    The notice read: “No evacuation whilst stabling”

    • That is funny, Peter. Though not necessarily an example of bad translation, I loved the ‘no smoking’ sign in a German Youth Hostel: “Only the chimneys shall smoke in this place!”

  3. On our old football team’s website, someone once wrote a match report in English, then Google-translated to French and then Google-translated back to English. It was the biggest pile of nonsense ever, but also hilarious. Google-translate is only good for single words … and even then it’s sometimes still useless!

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