Category Archives: Google Translate

Gary, developer of MT systems

I use Google Translate to translate Chinese spam messages which regularly get posted on my website – just in case any of them are of interest!

Actually most of my interest in MT is not about free online MT tools like Google Translate, but about professional tools. I created my first rule-based MT system over 25 years ago and have been involved in developing machine translation since then. My main project is a commercial neural MT system for translating  between Dutch and English. But I also experiment in neural systems for other languages, most recently Indonesian and Turkish.

Since my own knowledge of Indonesian and Turkish is very poor, I’ve found a use for online MT in this experimental work too. For example, I could translate something into Indonesian with my own engine, then back-translate it through Google into English to see how well my model has learned the patterns of a new language. Other times I simply translate the same thing using both my own and Google’s engines and compare the results. It helps me check that my neural network building is going in the right direction.

I really do also Google-translate Chinese spam messages. The translations are usually very basic but tell me what I want to know about the spam – mostly that this is not something in which I could be remotely interested. Let’s not forget that before the arrival of online MT, companies would spend large sums of money each year translating documents that turned out to be completely useless. Online MT saves money.

In general I’m happy to recommend MT to friends for general information purposes: double-checking the translation of a menu in a Chinese restaurant, translating the instructions sent with self-assembly furniture, or reading spam. Most general online translators are quite capable of fulfilling such tasks nowadays. I also recommend MT as a language learning tool.

However, I would not rely on unchecked, unedited MT for information I need to make important decisions. Apart from the obvious fact that the machine translation may be fluent yet incorrect, we have to allow for the possibility that a decision may be challenged in the courts. (Example case. See MT use in the news for more links to news stories on the use of MT).

One thing I’d like people to understand and remember is that the best results are obtained when the MT system is “trained” to handle the type of texts being translated. In online tools like Google Translate, this is not the case.

Krista, language and communications professional

My English, French and Swedish are all strong and I studied them at the university, but German, Italian and Spanish are languages I haven’t studied since high school. I have a university degree in translation and I worked as a professional translator for some years, but for the past 15 years I’ve been more of a communications professional. I am the Managing Director of a national non-governmental organization and my job consists mostly of communications.

Rich use of Google Translate

I’ve been using Google Translate for many years now. Not in translation work, of course, but for a variety of other things. First of all, I use it to help me make sure I understand texts that are in languages I am not fully fluent in. I read articles, newspaper stories and research papers that have to do with my industry and are in a variety of languages. When I come across a passage I’m not sure I understand, I google-translate it into my native language of Finnish and also into English (usually both, not sure why…maybe curiosity? Or because I love languages?) I also want to know what similar organizations to mine are doing around Europe so I find myself google-translating web pages or other documents to be able to read them.

Sometimes I use the tool to help me when I have to write something in Swedish, which I struggle with a bit. I might write a piece and test it out in Google Translate to make sure I got the phrasing and spelling right. I also test it in regular Google to see if it’s a common way of expressing what I’m trying to express.

I guess the funny thing is that my most frequent use of Google Translate is not really for its translation function. I most often use it as a dictionary. I don’t have a good electronic dictionary at my disposal and I’m a bit lazy about looking things up in books. So I either google the word or use Google Translate to find the meaning. I don’t really look at the translation but down below, where they give dictionary-type information. Here’s an example:

GT dictionary

I like that it gives me multiple suggestions for a translation. I couldn’t ever see myself simply taking the 1 translation it gives in the box and using that. More context helps me make sure I understand.

This also works very well as a thesaurus, a bilingual one at that. It gives you optional synonyms in both languages. And one more thing, a feature I noticed just this year! The megaphone icon at the bottom of the word boxes? That is a pronunciation audio tool.

These kinds of language tools are included in many online dictionaries in different languages, but this is an easy option for multiple languages. Quick.

Oh, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but they want people to help develop Google Translate. I’ve done some volunteering there, mostly in English since that’s the easiest. You click through expressions and words and see if they’re correct or not. It’s kind of a game and helps to develop it. It’s fun.

Double-checking

Google Translate is hardly ever the only thing I use to verify the meaning of a text; normally I double-check it some other way. Even though it’s just for my own use, I work hard to get a good translation.

First of all, I only use it with languages I know well or at least a little. By comparing the original text and the translation, I know enough to know if the translation is something it’s supposed to be. I would never use it with languages like Arabic or Chinese because I would have no way of knowing how ‘right’ the translations are. I also try out translations with different language combinations, often including English somewhere. Because I have background knowledge on how machine translation works, I know that it works best when English is one of the languages used.

Another way I verify things is by putting them into regular Google. If I can see the same phrase and how it’s used in different contexts, then it can help me fully understand it. Usually when this happens it’s because I’m reading things that are not as familiar to me, like academic or technical texts.

The question of machine translation

I don’t go around recommending the use of machine translation to other people, no. Most often that’s because people need a translation for a text they want to give to someone else or publish. Then I recommend that they use a human translator, of course, because that is what is needed. I think it’s important to make sure people understand that. Another reason I don’t do it is that, if I were to recommend it to someone outside of the language industry, I can’t be sure that person understands the limits of machine translation.

If someone asks me for advice on using it, say they just want to understand a short paragraph, then I tell them it is useful for that if they understand the risks involved. But I’ve never recommended it as such.

When I first started using machine translation it was a bit of a shameful thing. The attitude in the translation community was definitely negative. I didn’t dare tell people I was using it. Nowadays it seems more acceptable for the purposes I use it for. I suppose in earlier years, up to 2010, people were afraid that machine translation would take all the work from translators and eventually they wouldn’t be needed. But now I think people understand it’s just a tool that can’t do everything we need humans to do. I noticed the shift in attitude sometime around 2014 or 2015. It was discussed in conferences in a different way and people were much more interested in the topic.

 

Anne, classical singing, and Google Translate

I Google-translate old Italian arias and not-quite-as-old German lieder.

For the past 8 years I’ve been taking lessons in classical singing. Part of being able to perform a song is to first ‘get inside’ it – understand what kind of message is involved and what the emotion and atmosphere surrounding it are like. Since the songs are often in languages I know only a little (German) or not at all (old Italian), I’ve found it helpful to start the process by putting the lyrics into Google Translate and translating them.

aria lyrics

When we start work with a new song, my teacher often plays the melody for me and sometimes also tells me a little bit about what it’s about. After that I try to find out more. First I check to see if I can find some kind of translation. Many of the songs have been used in teaching classical singing for a long time, so once in a while there is some kind of translation online. However, they can be surprisingly hard to find.

At first I tried looking up everything word-by-word in a dictionary, but that was slow and not that successful. You would have to know the modern equivalents of words in an old language to be able to look them up, and I couldn’t do that. When I put the whole thing into Google Translate, there were words here and there that didn’t get translated, but I still got a general idea of what it was saying.

I’ve used this method since then with new songs. If I can capture some key words – maybe a word is repeated throughout the song, or it’s emphasized somehow or used at a high point in the melody – and get an understanding of those, that is a good start, even if I don’t get a full understanding of the entire song.

I also often translate into both English and my native language of Finnish. Doing it into 2 languages is a good method – you might get something in one of the languages that the other didn’t succeed at, so between the 2 you end up covering mostly everything. And given the options of no understanding or some understanding, I’ll take the latter.

Also, of course Google Translate does not produce a beautiful narrative like the original, but I don’t expect it to. The original is old poetry, after all, and that is difficult even for human translators. What I need is to understand a bit of what it’s about and capture some keywords.

Once a pretty funny thing happened where I found out I had completely misunderstood the translated lyrics of a song I was working on. It was in German and there was just one word I didn’t understand so I put it into Google Translate. Something about the translation of that one word gave me the impression that the speaker in the poem was a woman who was just content to be dancing around with other country folk. It turned out that it was actually about a man who was somewhat lewd and disgusting!

Finally one day I was singing it with my teacher and a pianist. We got to talking about what it’s about, what the feeling and atmosphere should be during each part of the song. I told my teacher what I thought it was and she corrected me. Whereas my earlier rendering had been slightly solemn and serious, after the explanation I understood the humor and playfulness of the poem and was able to match the slightly mischievous tone much better. It became much more fun.

Interview with Gus, university lecturer

Gus is a Scottish man who has been living in Finland for the past 5 years or so. When he arrived, he knew no Finnish at all. By now he has learned some but mostly communicates in English (which is possible in Finland).

During his first years in Finland, Gus used Google Translate to understand Finnish texts. That worked fine for digital texts that he could copy/paste into the tool. The problem came with print texts such as notices on the wall of his apartment building and official letters.

About a year ago, Gus got a new Android phone and went looking for tools that could help him with his translation needs. He put together a workflow involving Text Fairy, a text recognition app, and machine translation in the form of the Google Translate app.

Q: What kinds of things do you translate using Text Fairy + Google Translate?

Gus: I mostly use it for official notifications. They tend to put up notices on the wall in my apartment building, so I use it with those. Or I might get an official document in the mail, a letter from the bank, an insurance document, once I got a notification about voting. I use it mostly in those cases.

I might use it with a sign I don’t understand, things in stores, but that is rare. Most often I understand everything but 1 or 2 words, and then it’s easier to punch it into Google Translate directly. I’ve even taken pictures off my computer screen and used it. I had one of those PDFs that don’t let you copy text from them, so I just took a picture instead. It worked.

Q: How long have you been using text recognition + machine translation?

Gus: About a year. My old phone was a Nokia and didn’t have any good apps available for doing this kind of thing. I got a Samsung about a year ago and found these apps. I tried out a few that claimed to translate texts directly but their text recognition was fairly poor. I noticed that Text Fairy did a pretty good job of it, so I put that together with Google Translate.

Q: Do you ever have problems with it?

Gus: Texts that are too small are hard for the text recognition function to figure out.

Q: In the case of your use with official documents, what is your main goal?

Gus: Mere comprehension. To get specific, I will start with the first paragraph to see what the thing is about. If I decide that it looks important, then I go into more detail, translating further paragraphs.

Q: How often do you use this method to translate texts?

Gus: 2-3 times a month.

Q: Do you always understand the translations you get?

Gus: I can usually figure them out. Never had one where I couldn’t tell what it was talking about.

Q: If you don’t understand something in a translation, what do you do?

Gus: When I get stuck, it’s usually just 1-2 words that are unclear, so I type those into Google Translate.

Q: If you couldn’t use your method for machine translating texts, what would you do instead?

Gus: I would have to type things into Google Translate. If I didn’t have access to that either, I would use a dictionary and I would ask people to translate for me. I’m happy to have this solution because of the convenience. I don’t need to go bothering other people to translate for me.

Q: Do you make decisions based on the texts you translate with this method?

Gus: No. If I was dealing with a big or risky issue, I would make sure I fully understood the text by asking a colleague to translate.

Q: You said you normally translate from Finnish to English. Have you ever used this solution with other language pairs?

Gus: I was in Spain a few weeks ago and used it to translate from Spanish into English. A friend and I were almost sure we understood a document she had gotten, but we wanted to make sure. So we used it to verify we understood.

Demo: translating the day’s menu at the university cafeteria using Text Fairy + Google Translate

Gus1

1.  Gus takes a picture of today’s menu.

Gus2

2. He crops it to include only the text he’s interested in. Text Fairy crops the image.

Gus3

3. He tells Text Fairy how many columns of text there are, verifies that the original text is in Finnish, and starts the text recognition.

Gus4

4. Text Fairy shows him the result of the scan.

Gus5

5. He copies the text, opens Google Translate, and pastes it there.

Gus6

6. He sees what delicacies await him in the cafeteria!