Around 2010 my company acquired a factory in Brazil. Although there were a few native Spanish speakers on my team, no one knew Portuguese. Our Brazilian colleagues did not speak English. I decided I would start studying Portuguese because I had some responsibilities in the acquisition project.
While I was still learning the language, I had a lot of documents I had to review which were in Portuguese. I heard from colleagues about Google Translate and I thought I would try using it to help me with those documents, just to be able to get some idea of what is covered in them. I am by no means a techie kind of person, I’m not that interested. To me, applications are just tools you use to get things done. Google Translate was one of those.
I realized pretty much right away that there are advantages and disadvantages to Google Translate. Use of a machine translation tool is not the same thing as proficiency in a language. But if you understand that and how to use it as a tool, then it is helpful. I ended up using Google Translate for several years while learning Portuguese.
One way I used it was to translate documents from Portuguese to English, to get an idea what they were about. I translated articles in trade magazines, economic reports, excerpts from longer things like books. Things that were not that demanding technically. I would copy/paste an excerpts or whole articles for translation. I never translated anything like legal documents. I seriously doubt Google Translate would produce anything other than harm in those cases.
I usually understood the topic of the things I translated, what they were about. Something about the substance. The thing is that if you understand the context, you can take what the machine translation gives you and connect the dots and bridge the gaps. You get some building blocks and put together the whole picture yourself.
If I didn’t understand something, I could always call a colleague and ask them for clarification. We had very good cooperation with our Brazilian colleagues and they were very appreciative that I was trying to learn their language. They were helpful.
Another way I used the tool was in learning Portuguese and building my vocabulary. I would check the translations of single words in Google. Why didn’t I use a dictionary? Because Google Translate is faster. And when you look up a single word, the translation is almost always correct.
I also used it to check forms in Portuguese, to see if they were correct. I used it along with other language learning materials. When I was trying to produce Portuguese, I would check the form in things I was writing to see if it made sense. That was for informal things like e-mails. For more important things I asked colleagues about things I was unsure about.
I never made decisions based on the information I used Google to translate. Goodness no. Not for big strategic decisions or even smaller ones.
Thoughts on using machine translation
Machine translation does not equal proficiency in the other language. Nor is it a shortcut to proficiency. People are so used to getting things immediately. But it’s not that easy.
You have to have some critical thinking and understanding of the limitations of the tool. When you understand the theory and why things happen the way they do, then use of a tool like Google Translate is nice, neat and handy. I think of it like this: if you’ve studied medicine for 5 years and use information on the internet to help you diagnose symptoms you’ve been having, that is a totally different thing than a person with no background who googles their symptoms.
It is also helpful if you’ve studied the other language involved (the one you’re translating from) and know something about what it’s about. For example, you can spot wrong synonyms that the machine produces. If I were translating from a language I have no idea of, that would be a very different thing. For me it was important to be able to reflect on my own language capabilities – there’s always some kind of reflection on the language.
It should never be used blindly, with the user just accepting what machine translation gives them.