When to use Google Translate (and when NOT to use it!)

Analysis of the quality of Google Translate for technical documents, journalistic material, and creative marketing text

It is fair to say that the quality of translations generated by the free Google Translate machine translation service has come a long way in the last few years, so much so that many professional translators and freelancers consider it as a useful and even reliable resource when working on their translation projects. But to what extent can it be used with great confidence? This article will highlight some of the benefits and the limitations of using Google Translate for both personal and professional use, and the situations in which using the tool should be either avoided or at least approached with great caution.

To find out the extent to which Google Translate can be used in a business environment, HI-COM’s translation team ran a few experiments, focusing on the tool’s ability to translate a range of documents with varied content and differing degrees of complexity from French to English. Each document contained around 500 words.

DOCUMENT 1 –Translation of Basic Technical instructions

The first test for the tool was a technical document consisting of basic instructions on how to assemble a self-service payment terminal.

Here is what we observed after running the text through Google Translate:

  • In general, the automatic translation did a good job in terms of general accuracy and readability when translating very basic sentences. In the example below, we felt that only one small preferential change was necessary.

  • We observed that the automatic translation mostly chose suitable vocabulary. However there were occasional problems with consistency. Somewhat bizarrely, some French terms were not always translated into English in the same way, even when the source sentence was identical, as shown in the examples below:

  • Despite providing impressively localized suggestions on some occasions, a few unnatural word-for-word translations still remained:

  • Below is another example of inconsistent use of vocabulary (‘embossed’ does not feature this time, even though the source term ‘cache enjoliveur’ is the same in both sentences!), and also note the rather muddled order of the three nouns in red:

  • Here’s one more example of the machine translation not quite picking up on the context of the document. The foot in the document is not a human foot!

So, do we recommend using Google Translate for technical documents consisting of basic sets of instructions?

Yes, if:

  • You just need to get the general gist of the document, and only need an approximate translation, which will not be used for professional use.
  • You are using the translation for professional use, but only if you have the file proofread and edited thoroughly by a professional native translator.

No, if:

  • You intend to use the translation for professional use and don’t have the time or resources to get it checked. This could lead to major issues with users following incorrect instructions!
  • The end user of the translation has special requirements in terms of the vocabulary and terminology to be used, which must be strictly adhered to.

 

DOCUMENT 2 – Translation of an environmental publication – journalistic material

For Google Translate’s next test, we decided to give it a slightly trickier challenge. We fed through the content of an environmental publication, consisting of various articles written by journalists on current environmental issues in France.

Here’s what we observed after running 500 words through the machine translation:

  • In general, sentences were mostly translated accurately, but the writing style and sentence structure left a bit to be desired, as shown in the example below:

  • Once again, in the example below, we can see some style issues, but also some very rigid word-for-word translation, especially the question at the end of this segment:

  • We found a few instances where ‘false friends’ were mistranslated. For example, the French for ‘occasions’ does not mean ‘opportunities’ in this context:

So, do we recommend using Google Translate for publications / journalistic material?

Yes, if:

  • You just need to get the general gist of the document, and only need an approximate translation, which will not be used for professional use.
  • You are using it for professional use, but only if you have the file proofread and edited thoroughly by a professional native translator, and please note that for this to be done correctly, it could take almost as long as translating the document from scratch.

No, if:

  • You intend to use the translation for professional use and don’t have the time or resources to get it checked. This will lead to mistranslations remaining in the document, as well as frustrations and gritting of teeth from certain readers due to the lack of fluidity, unnatural style, and poor structure of the sentences.
  • The end user of the translation has high standards in terms of quality and accuracy. In this situation we strongly recommend foregoing Google Translate completely, and instead calling upon a professional translator with rich experience in this field.

 

DOCUMENT 3 – Translation of a descriptive, creative marketing text

And so to Google Translate’s final and arguably toughest challenge.

The third document to be translated is an introduction to a cosmetics brand, meticulously written with love and affection by its proud CEO*.

Here’s what we found:

  • One disadvantage of machine translation, is that it is not possible to keep bold, italicized, or underlined text. If you have a large document to translate containing text with various colors, font sizes, and other such characteristics, using machine translation would require lots of time-consuming alterations afterwards. Note also the rather literal translation, which would most likely struggle to impress potential customers.

  • In the example below, the machine translation has rather awkwardly left ‘cosmetic’ in its singular form:

  • To fully convey the author’s message in another language, translating documents such as this one requires a great deal of tender loving care. The machine translation gives us something we can read and understand, but not much more. To move to the next level and really bring out the original text in its fullest form, calling upon the services of a copy writer or marketing expert is an essential step, as we can see in the example below:

  • As shown in the example below, Google Translate offers up some rather odd word-for-word suggestions.

So to conclude the third test, do we recommend using Google Translate for creative, descriptive marketing material?

Yes, if:

  • You just need to get the general gist of the document, and only need an approximate translation, which will not be used for professional use.

No, if:

  • You intend to use the translation for anything other than non-professional use. For us, using machine translation for this type of document with the intention of exposing it to potential customers is an absolute no-no. Calling upon the services of an experienced translator and a native copy writer right from the beginning would be by far the most straightforward and successful approach.

So there we have it! As we have seen in the 3 documents we tested, machine translation certainly has its uses, especially in social situations, or if you are just looking to get familiar with a text written in an unfamiliar language. However, as seen in some of the examples above, we strongly recommend using it with caution in professional situations. You never know, it could cost you a key account or two if you’re not careful!

 

*Names of CEO and brand have been changed

 

RobertWhen to use Google Translate (and when NOT to use it!)