Sunday, January 27, 2008

In Defense of Google Translate

In a relatively old post on his XML Aficionado blog, Alexander Falk critics Google Translate's performance translating German to English, and concludes that machine translation in general, as it stands, is of no practical use.

I beg to disagree. While machine translation is rarely flawless, I have found it suitable to hand the bulk of translation works – leaving me with the much lighter tasks of reviewing and editing the resulting text. The last two posts on this blog, for example, have been translated from Portuguese with the help of Google Translate.

And even on one occasion, it served me well enough in translating a text – a technical reference that seemed to be the only one of its kind – from German to English. Notice that I don't know German at all, yet the translation, while by no means pretty, was intelligible enough that I could grasp its contents, and later use what I learned to solve a bug in a software I was developing.

So, imperfect as it is, machine translation already proves itself a useful tool.


  1. You wrote "While machine translation is rarely flawless, I have found it suitable to hand the bulk of translation works" and I would certainly agree with that. In particular, there are excellent translation support and translation memory tools, such as Trados (for documents) and Passolo (for software) that can make a professional translator's job a lot easier by handling the bulk of the work and freeing the translator up to think about the best wording for specialized cases.

    In my post last October I was mostly referring to fully automated machine translation rather than translation support software, and I still find the text being produced from these packages to be very crude and mostly on the border between grammaticlly incorrect and just plain ludicrous.

    However, you make a good point that if one doesn't know a language at all, and needs to access a technical reference, machine translation can produce a result that is meaningful enough to be useful.

  2. When I referred to "machine translation", I actually meant automated translators like Google's; I wasn't aware that translation support tools such as Trados existed. And while I am sure that they are a much better fit for the job, the comparatively clumsy web translators provide an effective (and promptly available) alternative for casual, short translation works.

    Of course, it is hard to disagree that the performance of such tools is irregular at best. In my particular experience, Google Translate proved specially bad at translating idiomatic expressions, which it often turned into useless piles of gibberish. Still, starting from a half-arsed translation and then improving it proved a lighter job than translating everything from scratch.