Category Archives: Google Translate

Rebekka’s story

Last year on New Year’s Eve, just before I turned 74, I found my Russian family.

I was born during the war years to a Finnish woman and a Russian prisoner of war (a bit of Finnish history). My father, who could speak Finnish, had been sent to work on a farm in Finland. My mother often helped out on that farm and that’s how they met. Their love story was a short one, lasting from spring to the next fall when the war ended and he was of course sent back to the Soviet Union. As a previous prisoner, after that he would not have been allowed to try to contact my mother back in Finland, so I’m not sure if he ever knew about me.

I was pretty young when my godmother told me about my father being a Soviet prisoner of war. My mom never talked about it, even when I came home from school and asked her why the other kids at school were calling me ‘russki’ and what it even meant. Later as an adult I tried asking her about it and writing letters asking her for information. She could never answer.

But my Russian heritage…it’s always been a part of me. I’ve been fascinated with the language and Orthodoxism and the music and all. And I had often wondered about a possible family in Russia, but it was my daughter who started this whole adventure. She began to search for information on my father and his family as part of a high school history class project, though she unfortunately hit a dead end because the name of the Mordovian village my father was from was misspelled in the records.

A few years ago she took up the search again, this time with the help of social media. She sent out a message about my story and desire for information. Then on New Year’s Eve we got a message from Oleg, a man from the same village as my father whose interest in local history pushed him to follow up on our message. He reported that he had found my family.

Right after I got the information on my family, I signed up for Russian classes and started studying. I’ve had a few challenges in keeping it up, like the fact that I live fairly far out in the country and last spring the roads were covered with ice, but I keep working at it. My daughter also set me up with a language teaching app in my phone and that is pretty good. But my Russian is not good enough to use in communicating with my sisters.

Enter machine translation

After Oleg sent that first message to my daughter that he thought he had found my family, he sent one directly to me, in Russian. I thought, how the heck can I write to him? How is this going to work? My daughter told me about these translation apps, set one up in my phone, and told me to start learning. And so I did.

Next I sent a message to one of my sisters and it didn’t take long – was it a week? even less – before she replied. That’s how the whole thing got started.

Soon I was communicating with all 3 sisters. Later the same year my daughter and I spent a week at one of the sister’s homes in Transnistria. Several months after that we went to Moscow and all 4 of us sisters appeared on a Russian TV show that featured our story. By now we are messaging each other all the time and I feel like I’ve gotten to know them all well. I also communicate with Oleg, who has become a good friend, plus a cousin and other relatives and friends I’ve met.

We communicate in a Russian social media app called Odnoklassniki or ’OK’. When I get a message from them in Russian, I copy it, go to the Google Translate app, and paste it there to get a translation into Finnish that I can understand. When I want to send a message back, I write my message in Finnish in Google Translate and translate it into Russian, then copy that, go back to the OK app, and paste it there.

Lately I’ve started to check the translations of my messages before I send them on. I take the Russian translation and translate that back into Finnish to make sure it says what I want it to say. If it doesn’t, I try writing it in a different way to see if it works better. When I’m finally satisfied I’m saying what I want to say and it’s a sensible message, I copy it, paste it back into the OK app, and send it to the other person.

I do all of this on my phone. My computer is just too slow so I gave up on it. At first I was nervous about these smartphones, I remember saying to my daughter that I’m afraid to use it! Her answer was to get me a phone and say, ’Now go learn it! Try things out for yourself.’ And that’s what I did.

Working between the OK app and Google Translate is a bit slow, you can only work with 1 message at a time and there’s a lot of copying and pasting and going back and forth between different apps. And it gives crazy translations sometimes! But it’s just very handy and I use it all the time.

One of my sisters complains about the bad translations. She has started to send me messages in Finnish. I guess she translates them on her side and sends me that, but I don’t know what kind of system she uses for that. Anyway it can actually be kind of problematic, like when I asked her for her address and she put it through Google Translate, so I got street names translated into Finnish. I couldn’t use that.

My sisters and I chat about all kinds of things. They often ask me about my health and warn me about things like walking on ice because it’s slippery. We also talk about food and recipes. One interesting thing is how often they use the word love. Right from the beginning they did that. I’m just not that used to that kind of thing.

Sometimes things go wrong in the communication and I can tell the other person didn’t understand my message because they give me answers that are way off. Then I just try writing and translating the message again.

Once I asked one of my sisters for a recipe for a food she served while we were there, some kind of stuffed bell peppers. She sent me the recipe and later asked, ’Well, was the pepper good?’ I was wondering what on earth pepper thing she was talking about, but of course she meant the bell peppers.

But even though I get some pretty crazy translations from this tool, it’s pretty rare that I’m left wondering what others mean with something. I just kind of put things together and figure out what it must be about. And somehow my sisters and I almost always understand each other. We’ve gotten to know each other pretty well over the last year and somehow we can just get the meaning even if the translation is wrong.

Overall I think these translation tools are very useful. I tell people that you have to do a bit of work, but it’s still handy. Without them, well…I couldn’t keep in touch with people. It would be very limited. It’s not realistic to think that I’d learn Russian well enough to be able to translate and write it, no matter how interested I am in it. So this translation app is really important, even though it translates things however it wants to.

Nora, young world traveler

One of the most comical situations I’ve been in with machine translation was when a colleague and I went to see a local tourist site in a part of China where people don’t tend to speak English. We were trying to buy tickets with the help of Google Translate but for some reason, no one could understand what we wanted. I think they were telling us where we needed to go, and we just kept repeating that we want to buy tickets. Then more and more people gathered around to help and we were all typing furiously on our phones. After 15 minutes we finally managed to get the tickets.

GT screenshot_buytickets

It was in China that I originally got the idea that machine translation would be helpful while traveling. Some colleagues and I were trying to work out something in Chinese when one of them pulled out her phone, translated, and we quickly figured it out. Before that I’d used Google Translate rarely, just to check individual words while I was studying or something.

Nowadays I use the Google Translate app very often. My work in the international travel industry means I travel to a lot of foreign destinations, spending 1-5 days in each. In many locations I get by just fine with English, but especially in China and Japan, I find myself pulling out my phone and using Google Translate many times a day.

One of the main places I use it is in restaurants and it seems to be a very common thing to do that. Especially in China, the minute they realize we don’t share a language, they pull out a phone and start trying to communicate through machine translation. In Japan it’s kind of the opposite – they won’t be the first to start trying with Google Translate. I think they’re quite shy, and maybe a bit embarrassed that they don’t know English. The Chinese seem to want to understand so they jump right in and don’t worry about potentially embarrassing situations.

I actually know a little Chinese so might get by on that and body language, but I also eat vegetarian so often need to explain things a bit more. If I try to say ‘No meat!’ with my few words of Chinese, they might only understand the word ‘meat’ and bring me a meat dish. (In fact that has happened and I was presented with octopus, beef and shrimp. Perfect.) Better to translate what I’m trying to say on the phone.

Most of the time I type what I want to say into the app and then it translates. If the person looks confused then I try writing it again in a slightly different way. Once in a while I use the voice thing where you talk into the phone’s speaker and it translates, but mostly I like the typing better. Somehow with the voice thing I’m less sure if it’s correct or not. Sometimes I use both: first let them read the translated text, then listen to a voice translation.

I also use the Google Translate app in stores to read labels and signs. One of my favorite things to do abroad is to visit local grocery stores, I love spending time in them. And, of course, since I’m often at a destination for several days, I need to buy some very normal, everyday things. Or I might shop for clothing and then I want to good, natural materials. What I use in these situations is that translation app function where I take a photo of a text – a label or a sign – and it tries to translate it for me.

The app has even been helpful at work on occasion. Like when a customer speaks a language I don’t know, or even a dialect of a language that is hard to understand, but they really need something. Then we have sometimes used Google Translate to communicate and resolve their issues.

I would say that my success rate with using apps to communicate with other people is fairly high, maybe 80-100% Usually I get what I want and they understand me, at least I think so. With the picture-taking method I’d say the rate of success is more like 50/50. Sometimes I get a clue what something’s about but sometimes…it’s just random words. The photo thing is just not that good yet.  

I always use English with these machine translation apps. I just think that my own language is not a good language to translate with. It seems to me that English is the key to machine translating. Or should I say it this way: if you understand English, it’s much easier for you to use it.

Eeva’s story: 现在我们出去玩 (Now we’re going out to play)

This is a good time to tell you about how we used Google Translate with our now-6-year-old son because just last week we celebrated the 2-year anniversary of when we went to China to adopt him. He had just turned 4 then.

Before we left for China, I wondered how we’re going to manage to communicate with a little boy who speaks his own language but doesn’t yet know how to read it. And we didn’t know any Chinese. We had a Chinese guide with us on the trip, so I asked him about maybe using Google Translate. He said yes, that could work; he had a similar tool that he used from time to time. He told us the right version of Chinese to use with it and also gave us advice on how to use it. The main thing was to use as simple and short sentences as possible.

We tried it out, typing out our Finnish sentences and then having the app “speak” in Chinese. We considered using spoken Finnish input too, but thought that there might be a bigger chance of mistakes then so we stuck to typing. We did say the sentences out loud in Finnish as we typed so that our son would start to connect what we were saying with what was happening.

Our son is a very responsive child and quickly figured out that the Chinese coming from the phone was telling him something helpful. He would nod and then do what the app told him to do. Or he might answer back ‘No!’ if he didn’t want to do what it was telling him to do (that was a Chinese word we learned quickly). Either way, we knew he understood.

We used this system mostly for things that we couldn’t communicate through hand signals. Things like what is happening and what we’re going to do next: “Mommy is making the food. Then we’ll eat.” Why we’re all getting our clothes on: “Now we’re going outside.” That was important, we didn’t want him to feel confused.

Translation of 'Mommy is making the food. Then we'll eat.' from English to Simplified Chinese

I’d say during the first month we used it 10 times a day. I pretty much had my phone near me at all times, ready to go whenever my son showed signs of being confused or wondering about what’s going on. Every once in a while the app clearly got my sentence wrong so I had to try again, but at least half the time it worked fine on the first try.

How did it affect his learning of Finnish? It’s kind of hard to say because I don’t know what it might have been like without us using Google Translate. But I think it most likely made learning Finnish easier. It was just astounding how quickly he picked it up! Though kids at that age, they tend to learn very quickly.

We didn’t end up using this system very long. We met our son in January and I clearly remember that by March he started to use the Finnish words he knew. We had had an interpreter along for things like doctor visits, and in March he also stopped replying to her in Chinese. I guess he might have thought that Finnish belongs to his new life and positive experiences, so he just made a conscious decision to stop using Chinese. 

I recently asked him if he remembers using the translation app at the beginning. He remembered that it was a woman’s voice (true) and that he understood her every time she spoke (not so sure on that one, he tends to be a bit of an optimist).  

Even though we only used machine translation for that short time, it was a very effective time. It helped us to explain things and what was going on. It was a big help.

Gustav: “With machine translation I can contribute better, also in places where I’m not directly asked.”

For the first several years I lived in Finland, I worked in a large, very international company and English was the main language used. Even though that is not my native language, Swedish is, my English is very good. But a few years ago I changed jobs and my new job is in a truly Finnish company with only 3-4 non-Finns working there. Finnish is not a requirement (luckily, or they wouldn’t have hired me), but of course people are more comfortable with Finnish. I think this is a great thing actually, I see it very much as an opportunity for me to learn Finnish.

Some of the texts I need to deal with at work, e-mails and documentation on the software products we make, are in English half the time and Finnish half the time. There is no strict language policy. Other texts I need to understand are always in Finnish, like human resources kind of information – things like, what’s the company’s travel policy? What is the procedure I need to follow to take parental leave?

My Finnish is OK-ish. I find it hard to follow spoken Finnish. But with written things like e-mails or instructions, I can usually work out the basics of what I need. The problem is when I need to understand the details. Then I can very often get lost. So what I do is use Google Translate to translate the parts that I don’t understand. Sometimes I do it to get confirmation that I have understood things correctly.

I mostly translate from Finnish to English, not Swedish, because generally I find it works better than Finnish-to-Swedish. Every once in a while if the English translation is iffy or I don’t understand it, I might try translating into Swedish.  

I would say that machine translation works surprisingly well. I use it pretty much daily and 80-90% of the times I use it, it gives me the information I need. I actually work with speech and language technology and I’ve noticed that in the past couple of years, there have been amazing advances in machine translation in terms of readability. I have been using it more and more since I noticed this. It helps that I know the general gist of things when I translate a text – I’m confident that I can assess whether the translation makes sense or not.

When it doesn’t work – I don’t understand something I’ve translated – I go back to the original text in Finnish and simplify it. The original might have little mistakes in it that I correct, or I simplify the content and structure a bit. And then I put it through machine translation again. This often helps. When it doesn’t, I either ask a colleague for help or I simply decide that the text is not that important so I ignore it.

Machine translation really helps me in getting the missing pieces from everyday e-mails and documents. I might get an e-mail with a long discussion thread, all in Finnish, and finally someone forwards it to me to see if I can help with the solution. With the help of Google Translate, I can get a better understanding of the thread and the context of the problem, and then I can answer more questions and answer the right questions better.

What would I do if I didn’t have the help of machine translation at work? Well, I would probably be more blind to the context of things. I might end up ignoring some things, and I suppose I might end up being less cooperative in a way. I would get away with being more in the background. With the translation I can contribute better, also in places where I wasn’t directly asked. 

On a larger scale, one thing that surprises me is how little visible impact machine translation has had on businesses. Take web shops – you rarely see web shops from other places in Europe that have their pages machine translated. You rarely see them available in, say, 25 languages. It seems to me that businesses, even small ones, could be selling across Europe more than they are now. Machine translation could help.

Google Translate in a fourth-grade classroom

I teach the fourth grade in a public elementary school in the suburbs of a large U.S. city, and in my classroom I often have a child or two with very limited English skills. These kids are 8 or 9 years old and often here with parents who are stationed temporarily in the U.S. They get daily or weekly time with the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher, but other than that, they are fully integrated into normal American classrooms.

I use Google Translate with these children in a very focused, need-to-solve-a-problem basis. I have a specific question I need to ask, an instruction I need them to follow, or I need to get information from them. Things like, How are you going home today? Are you going to buy lunch in the cafeteria today or did you bring a lunch? You know, the kinds of daily activities in the life of a classroom.

When I was in the third grade my dad got posted in a foreign country for a year, so I actually know what it’s like for those kids. You’re just sitting there in a fog while everyone around you speaks Russian or some language you can’t grasp. Nowadays I have a tool I can use to help kids in a similar situation through the school day: Now we’re going to do this. This is what you need to do. Those kinds of things are important for their general feeling of well-being, that they can manage the school day.

Julia_GT excerptI sometimes use it in other ways. During writing lessons, I might have a child write in their native language. Then I copy/paste that into Google Translate so I have an idea of what they’ve written. I figure at this stage, writing in your own language is better than trying to write in English. I’ve even tried translating larger blocks of text for a student to read so they can at least know what is being discussed in class.

The languages I’ve dealt with so far are French and Spanish. I had Latin in high school so I can recognize word derivations and root words and can be somewhat assured that what’s been translated is moderately close to what we’re talking about.

When you’re communicating this way, you have to read between the lines a bit. It’s usually so situation-specific that you can get the meaning, but once in a while it takes some back-and-forth questions and answers to narrow things down and get an understanding. Luckily if we hit a dead end, I usually have a backup: a school employee or another child who speaks the student’s language. If that method fails, we can always call the parents to sort things out. At least one of them usually speaks English.

As the kids learn more English, I find myself using machine translation more. I can tell that they are starting to understand me a bit and I want to communicate more. I first say something then I type it into Google Translate. They can see the connection between what I’m saying, what I’m typing, and then what it goes out to in their own language.

I feel like machine translation is a resource that I can use to move to the next step. It really feels like a bridge for understanding.

Whatever else happens, I want these kids to feel like they are understood.