Category Archives: MT in everyday life

Nadal and Fourcade super fan!

Nadal_FB      Fourcade 3

My name is Pirkko, I’m a 77-year-old woman, and I admit to being a super fan. There are 2 athletes I follow avidly: tennis player Rafael Nadal and biathlete Martin Fourcade (and also, on the side, Fourcade’s biathlete younger brother Simon)

I’m one of those crazy sports fans, the kind of person who gets a tennis channel and watches it. A lot. But I like to do more than just watch the sports, I want to learn about the athletes themselves. Knowing them better and knowing something personal about them – that gives some depth to the whole experience of being a sports fan.

If I were limited to what they write about these guys in the press here in Finland, well, I wouldn’t know much. So I go online to read up on them. I am Facebook friends with both Nadal and Fourcade and both write something almost every day. I like reading those and I enjoy the pictures too – it puts me into a good mood. I feel like it opens up my world.

Since I don’t know any Spanish or French, only a bit of English, I rely entirely on the translations provided by Facebook. No, the translations are not perfect, but I understand that they’re not going to be. The thing is, I know the fields and I know the people involved, so if something is unclear I can make a good guess at what it’s supposed to mean. For example, take the words judge and play. Sometimes the machine gets those wrong, placing judge in a courtroom and play in a music lesson. But we’re talking tennis here, so I know that the real meanings have to do with referees and tennis rackets.

Both Fourcade and Nadal also tend to write messages both in their own language and English, and Facebook gives me translations for both:

Fourcade FB

It’s helpful to have 2 translations. I always look at both translations and put together the meaning from their combination. The translation from English is almost always better than the one from French or Spanish, but I’m looking at an example right now where the translation from French is better. IMHO the translations on Fourcade’s page tend to be better than the ones on Nadal’s, but it could simply be that Fourcade writes more clearly.

When there is a word or post I don’t understand, I sometimes type it into Google Translate. I also have a dictionary, I suppose I should use that more often too (chuckle). If there is a handy child or grandchild around, I might ask them for help, but I don’t go calling my kids to ask. The stuff I am translating is not that important.

Thoughts on machine translation

I found this translation thing pretty much right away when I joined Facebook, so I’ve been using it for more than 10 years now. My friends don’t use it and I don’t really go recommending it to people. I’m old enough that my friends are really not technical – I don’t think I’d have anyone to recommend it to!

I’m really satisfied that there is a tool like this for those of us who don’t know languages. Computers have brought both bad and good things to our lives, mostly good in my opinion, and machine translation is a nice addition to that. Without it, I don’t think I’d follow the athletes as much. Being able to go further and learn about the personal lives and histories of the athletes I follow – it brings openness to my world. 

Max, manager at a large multinational company

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. 

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


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


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


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.


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


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


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