May 1, 2012

Google Translate: triumphs and trials


Today, mom died. Or maybe yesterday, I do not know. I received a telegram from the Asylum: Mother died. Funeral tomorrow. Distinguished sentiments. This does not mean anything. It might be yesterday.

That’s Google Translate‘s take on the famous opening passage of L’Etranger, elsewhere translated by Joseph Laredo as:

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

Last week, Franz Och, Distinguished Research Scientist at Google Translate, published an article reflecting on his last six years at work on the system that now performs ‘most of the translation on the planet’. He offers some interesting stats about the huge and growing reach of the service:

More than 92 percent of [Google Translate’s] traffic comes from outside the United States.

In 2006, the system was too slow to run as a practical service—it took us 40 hours and 1,000 machines to translate 1,000 sentences.

We can now translate among any of 64 different languages, including many with a small web presence, such as Bengali, Basque, Swahili, Yiddish, even Esperanto.

Today we have more than 200 million monthly active users on (and even more in other places where you can use Translate, such as Chrome, mobile apps, YouTube, etc.)

Och’s enthusiasm is contagious: thanks to him and his team — and other online translation services — we’ve made real leaps in global communication, on an enormous scale and within a relatively tiny timeframe. Of course the program still frequently produces nonsense, but who hasn’t used it as a rough but convenient first route into a totally unknown language?

I give the Camus translation because it throws light on some quirks and bugs, some obvious, some less so. First, the obvious: it’s far less elegant than a human translation, though Och himself is the first to point out that ‘for nuanced or mission-critical translations, nothing beats a human translator’. And in fact, with a prose style as stark as Camus’s in L’Etranger, Translate’s work is less unintelligible than it is elsewhere.

Then there’s that ‘mom’, meaning that the system favours American English, even on the site. Not the end of the world, but irritating — and a little disturbing — if you happen to favour a British orthography.

Maybe most importantly: while we all know already to look out for mangled sentences on Translate, for the most part its users tend to trust it for the accuracy of its vocabulary. Here, though, it renders ‘l’asile’ as ‘Asylum’, rather than ‘home’. That raises a question about Meursault’s mother that could totally skew one of the most striking characterisations in modern literature.

Responding to Och’s article last week, The Atlantic said that ‘when you just want to know the basics of what someone is saying, Google does the trick’. For all the marvels of this remarkable service, it’s worth remembering that that’s not always true.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.