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Online Translators - Machine Translation

Do online translators really work, or are they more trouble than they're worth?

Machine translation refers to any kind of automatic translation, including translation software, hand-held translators, and online translators. While machine translation is an interesting concept and considerably cheaper and faster than professional translators, the reality is that machine translation is extremely poor in quality. Language is simply too complicated for machines to understand all of the vocabulary, grammar, context, and nuances in the source and target languages. The technology is improving, but the fact is that machine translation will never offer more than a general idea about what a text says. When it comes to translation, a machine simply cannot take the place of a human.

Online translators, which can be used to translate webpages, emails, or a pasted-in block of text, are no exception. To demonstrate some of the problems inherent in machine translation, I've run three sentences through the top six online translators. In order to check the accuracy, I then ran each translation back through the same translator (reverse translation is a common verification technique of professional translators). I've also provided my own translation for each sentence. Keep reading to find out how the online translators held up.

Remember that translation is an inexact science - there are always numerous acceptable possibilities.

Sentence 1: I love you very much, honey.

This is a very simple sentence - beginning students could translate it with little difficulty.

Online Translator Translation Reverse Translation
Babylon Je t'aime beaucoup, miel. I love you much, honey.
Reverso  Je vous aime beaucoup, le miel. I like very much you, the honey.
FreeTranslation Je vous aime beaucoup, le miel. I like you a lot, the honey.
InterTran Je vous aime beaucoup , miel. I love you a lot , honey.
Google Translate Je t'aime beaucoup, le miel.* I love you very much, honey.
Bing Je t'aime beaucoup, miel. I love you, honey.

All six automatic translators took the word "honey" literally, rather than as a term of endearment, and three of them compounded the error by adding the definite article. The same three translated "you" as vous, which doesn't make much sense, given the meaning of the sentence. Bing lost beaucoup in its reverse translation, but Reverso did particularly badly - the word order is atrocious.

*This example is from 2009. When I checked again in 2013, Google Translate had corrected their translation to Je t'aime beaucoup, ma chérie, which is fine, other than the assumption that "my honey" is female. (Masculine is normally the default.) I then tried numerous other phrases (hello honey, good-night honey, etc.) and got similar results. However, "Honey I love you" gave me Miel je t'aime, so it seems clear that they manually added a list of common phrases for which "honey" should be translated as ma chérie but missed countless less obvious ones, like "Honey did you do the dishes?"

My translation: Je t'aime beaucoup, mon chéri.


Sentence 2: How many times did he tell you to write it?

Let's see if a subordinate clause causes any trouble.

Online Translator Translation Reverse Translation
Babylon Combien de fois vous a-t-il dit de lui écrire? How much time does it have says you to write to him?
Reverso  Combien de fois vous a-t-il dit de l'écrire ? How many times did he tell you to write it?
FreeTranslation Combien de fois a-t-il dit que vous écrivez il? How many times he says that you write it?
InterTran Que de nombreuses fois a-t-il ajouté dit vous à écrivons le? As many times has t - he added tell you at are writing him?
Google Translate Combien de fois a-t-il de vous dire à l'écrire?* How many times did he tell you to write?
Bing Combien de fois il vous a-t-il dit à l'écrire ? How many times he has told you to write it?

Babylon inexplicably decided that "it" was an indirect object, rather than the direct object it is, which completely changed the meaning. In its reverse translation, it mistakenly translated the passé composé's auxiliary verb and main verb separately. Google added the preposition de, which makes it sound like "how many times does he have to tell you to write it," and in its reverse translation is lost the direct object. FreeTranslation and Bing did even worse, with grammatically incorrect French translations. And InterTran's translation is completely bizarre. I have no idea why the nous form of écrire showed up, and I particularly like how in the reverse translation, it couldn't figure out what to do with the t- inversion. Reverso's translation and reverse translation are both excellent.

*Google's 2013 translation is even worse: Combien de fois at-il dit à l'écrire?

My translation: Combien de fois est-ce qu'il t'a dit de l'écrire ? or Combien de fois t'a-t-il dit de l'écrire ?


Sentence 3: Every summer, I drive up to the lake house and cruise around with my friends.

A longer and more complicated sentence.

Online Translator Translation Reverse Translation
Babylon Chaque été, je conduis à la maison et à la croisière de lac autour avec mes amis. Each summer, I lead to the house and to the cruising of lake around with my friends.
Reverso  Chaque été, je conduis(roule) jusqu'à la maison de lac et la croisière autour avec mes amis. Every summer, I lead(drive) (run)((drive)) up to the house of lake and the cruise all around with my friends.
FreeTranslation Chaque été, je conduis jusqu'à la maison de lac et jusqu'à la croisière environ avec mes amis. Every summer, I drive to the house lake and to the cruise about with my friends.
InterTran Tout été , Je conduis en haut aux lac villa et être en maraude autour de à mon amis. All been , I am driving up at the lake cottage and cruise about the one mine amigos.
Google Translate Chaque été, je conduis à la maison et le lac autour de croisière avec mes amis.* Every summer, I drive at home and around the lake cruise with my friends.
Bing Tous les étés, j'ai avancer jusqu'à la maison du lac et croisière autour avec mes amis. Every summer, I proceed to the home of the Lake and cruise around with my friends.

All six translators were fooled by the phrasal verb "cruise around" and all but Google by "drive up" - they translated the verb and preposition separately. The pairing "house and cruise" caused problems - InterTran is the only one that knew that cruise was a verb rather than a noun, but it had a number of other serious problems: it didn't conjugate être and it had a terrible time with "my friends" - it didn't make mon plural to agree with amis, and then in the reverse it incorrectly translated mon as "mine," not to mention amis into Spanish! In its reverse, Google was fooled by et into thinking that I drive to the house and to the lake separately. Less shocking but still incorrect is five programs' translation of drive as conduire - the latter is a transitive verb, but drive is used here intransitively. Bing chose avancer, which is not only the wrong verb, but in an impossible conjugation; it should just be j'avance. And what's up with capital L Lake in the reverse?

*Google in 2013: Chaque été, je conduis jusqu'à la maison du lac et me promener avec mes amis.

My translation: Chaque été, je vais en voiture à la maison de lac et je roule avec mes amis.


Common Problems in Machine Translation

Though a small sample, the above translations offer a pretty good idea of the problems inherent in machine translation. The inability to use context is obviously the biggest flaw of machine translation - automatic translators are unable to use surrounding language (not to mention simple logic) in order to choose the correct translation of a noun with several meanings, as in the case of honey => miel/chéri. Excessively literal translations are common, and incorrect grammar plays a role too.

All in all, online translators can give you some idea about the meaning of a sentence, but their numerous flaws make it impossible for them to ever replace professional translators. If you're just after the gist and don't mind decoding the results, you can probably get by with an online translator. But if you need a translation that you can count on, hire a translator. What you lose in money you'll more than make up for in professionalism, accuracy, and dependability.


Online Translators

Online Translation - French Class Project

Translation Links + Resources     Translators' Tools

Grammar Glossary     French Difficulties



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