Don't Count on Computerized Translations (2024)

In 2001 when I first tested online translators it was clear that even the best available weren't very good, making serious errors in vocabulary and grammar, many of them that wouldn't be made by a first-year Spanish student.

Have online translation services gotten any better? In a word, yes. The free translators seem to do a better job of handling simple sentences, and some of them appear to be making a serious effort to deal with idioms and context rather than translating a word at a time. But they still fall far short of being reliable and should never be counted on when you must correctly understand more than the gist of what is being said in a foreign language.

Which of the major online translation services is best? See the results of the experiment that follow to find out.

Put to the test: To compare the translation services, I used sample sentences from three lessons in the Real Spanish Grammar series, mostly because I had already analyzed the sentences for Spanish students. I used the results of five major translation services: Google Translate, presumably the most-used such service; Bing Translator, which is run by Microsoft and is also the successor to the AltaVista translation service dating back to the late 1990s; Babylon, an online version of the popular translation software; PROMT, also an online version of PC software; and, a service of the globalization company SDL.

The first sentence I tested was also the most straightforward and came from a lesson on the use of de que. It yielded quite good results:

  • Original Spanish: No cabe duda de que en los últimos cinco años, el destino de América Latina ha sido influenciado fuertemente por tres de sus más visionarios y decididos líderes: Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa y Evo Morales.
  • My translation: There is no room for doubt that in the last five years, the destiny of Latin America has been strongly influenced by three of its most visionary and audacious leaders: Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales.
  • Best online translation (Bing, tied for first): There is no doubt that in the past five years, the fate of Latin America has been strongly influenced by three of its most visionary and determined leaders: Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales.
  • Best online translation (Babylon, tied for first): There is no doubt that in the past five years, the fate of Latin America has been heavily influenced by three of its most visionary and determined leaders: Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales.
  • Worst online translation (PROMT): There is not doubt that in the last five years, the destination of Latin America has been influenced hard by three of its most visionary and determined leaders: Moral Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa y Evo.
  • Ranking (best to worst): Bing, Babylon, Google, FreeTranslation, PROMT.

All five online translations used "fate" to translate destino, and that's better than the "destiny" I used.

Read MoreAvoid Spanish Errors: Essential Tips for English SpeakersBy Gerald Erichsen

Google erred only in failing to create a complete sentence, starting out with "no doubt" instead of "there is no doubt" or the equivalent.

The final two translators encountered a common problem that computer software is more prone to than humans: They couldn't distinguish names from words that needed to be translated. As shown above, PROMT thought Morales was a plural adjective; FreeTranslation changed Rafael Correa's name to Rafael Strap.

The second test sentence came from a lesson on hacer that I chose partly to see if the character of Santa Claus would still be recognizable from the translations.

  • Original Spanish: El traje rojo, la barba blanca, la barriga protuberante y la bolsa repleta de regalos hicieron que, por arte de magia, los ojos de los pacientes de pediatría del Hospital Santa Clara volvieran a brillar.
  • My translation: The red suit, the white beard, the protruding belly and the bag full of gifts made the eyes of the pediatric patients at Santa Clara Hospital magically light up again.
  • Best online translation (Google): The red suit, white beard, protruding belly and bag full of gifts made, by magic, the eyes of pediatric patients at Hospital Santa Clara back to shine.
  • Worst online translation (Babylon): The red suit, beard, white belly protruding and the bag full of gifts made, by magic, the eyes of the pediatric patients of the Hospital Santa Clara back to shine.
  • Ranking (best to worst): Google, Bing, PROMT, FreeTranslation, Babylon.

Google's translation, although flawed, was good enough that a reader unfamiliar with Spanish would easily understood what was meant. But all of the other translations had serious problems. I thought that Babylon's attribution of blanca (white) to Santa's stomach rather than his beard was inexplicable and thus deemed it the worst translation. But FreeTranslation's wasn't much better, as it referred to Santa's "market of gifts"; bolsa is a word that can refer to a bag or purse as well as a stock market.

Neither Bing nor PROMT knew how to handle the hospital's name. Bing referred to "clear the Santa Hospital," since clara can be an adjective meaning "clear"; PROMT referred to the Holy Hospital Clara, since santa can mean "holy."

What surprised me the most about the translations is that none of them correctly translated volvieron. The phrase volver a followed by an infinitive is a very common way of saying that something happens again. The everyday phrase should have been programmed into the translators.

For the third test, I used a sentence from alesson on idiomsbecause I was curious if any of the translators would make an attempt to avoid word-for-word translation. I thought the sentence was one that called for a paraphrase rather than something more direct.

  • Original Spanish:¿Eres de las mujeres que durante los últimos meses de 2012 se inscribió en el gimnasio para sudar la gota gorda y lograr el ansiado "verano sin pareo"?
  • My translation:Are you one of those women who during the final months of 2012 signed up at the gym in order to work up a sweat and get the bikini summer you've been waiting for?
  • Best online translation (Google):Are you one of the women in the last months of 2012 was registered in the gym to sweat blood and achieve the coveted "summer without shorts"?
  • Worst online translation (FreeTranslation):You are of the women that during the last months of 2012 was recorded in the gymnasium to sweat the fat drop and to achieve the desired "summer without matching"?
  • Ranking (best to worst):Google, Bing, Babylon, PROMT, FreeTranslation.

Although Google's translation wasn't very good, Google was the only translator to recognize the idiom "sudar la gota gorda," which means to work extremely hard at something. Bing stumbled over the phrase, translating it as "sweat drop fat."

Bing did get credit, though, for translatingpareo, an uncommon word, as "sarong," its closest English equivalent (it refers to a type of wrap-around swimwear cover-up). Two of the translators, PROMT and Babylon, left the word untranslated, indicating that their dictionaries could be small. FreeTranslation simply picked the meaning of ahom*onymthat's spelled the same way.

I liked Bing's and Google's use of "coveted" to translateansiado; PROMT and Babylon used "long-awaited," which is a standard translation and appropriate here.

Google got some credit for understanding howdewas used near the start of the sentence. Babylon inexplicably translated the first few words as "Are you a women," showing a lack of understanding of basic English grammar.

Conclusion:Although the test sample was small, the results were consistent with other checks I made informally. Google and Bing usually produced the best (or least worst) results, with Google getting a slight edge because its results often sounded less awkward. The two search engines' translators weren't great, but they still outperformed the competition. Although I'd want to try more samples before making a final conclusion, I'd tentatively grade Google a C+, Bing a C and each of the others a D. But even the weakest ones would occasionally come up with a good word choice that the others didn't.

Except with simple, straightforward sentences using unambiguous vocabulary, you can't rely on these free computerized translations if you need accuracy or even correct grammar. They're best used when translating from a foreign language into your own, as when you're trying to understand a foreign-language website. They shouldn't be used if you're writing in a foreign language for publication or correspondence unless you're capable of correcting serious mistakes. The technology just isn't there yet to support that type of accuracy.

Don't Count on Computerized Translations (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Rev. Porsche Oberbrunner

Last Updated:

Views: 6328

Rating: 4.2 / 5 (53 voted)

Reviews: 92% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Rev. Porsche Oberbrunner

Birthday: 1994-06-25

Address: Suite 153 582 Lubowitz Walks, Port Alfredoborough, IN 72879-2838

Phone: +128413562823324

Job: IT Strategist

Hobby: Video gaming, Basketball, Web surfing, Book restoration, Jogging, Shooting, Fishing

Introduction: My name is Rev. Porsche Oberbrunner, I am a zany, graceful, talented, witty, determined, shiny, enchanting person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.