Tag Archives: machine translation

Jani, car dealership owner

“We use Google Translate just about every day, for different purposes.”

My business partner and I own and run a small used car dealership in Finland. I’m very good with English, I speak it every day, both at home and with customers at work. As for other languages, I took Swedish and German in school because I had to. I remember some things of both languages though I couldn’t really use them to converse with another person. Nowadays we need to deal with information in those languages on a regular basis.

We buy cars from Germany and Sweden and can take care of most of the dealing over the internet: we search for cars in an internet database, decide on which ones interest us, make offers, then arrange for transport, all entirely online. The first, very short descriptions of the cars are often in Finnish since the database’s interface is translated, but attached to each is also a 2-page detailed technical report which is written by a car inspector in the respective countries. These reports are filled with technical terms and it’s extremely important that we understand certain parts of them – the paragraphs that describe the condition and possible problems with each car.  Here’s an example, in which the heading INFORMATION FROM TEST DRIVE (coming from the software application) is in Finnish, but the excerpt of the report is in German:


We copy/paste those parts into Google Translate to get a translation into Finnish:


If you are among that small percentage of the world’s population that doesn’t know Finnish, here is the same in English:


As you can see in these examples, parts of the text are translated nearly perfectly. Other parts are not as good. Between what Google gives us and what we remember of our school Swedish and German, we usually figure out what we need to know.

From time to time we also buy car parts from different parts of Europe through eBay. Since we are searching for very specific parts, we just punch in the part number and have no problem locating the products. But we often need to machine translate information on payments and delivery. We use Google Translate for that too.

Normally we translate from Swedish and German into our own language of Finnish. Generally we are confident that the translations are good enough to base decisions on. It’s rare that we have to resort to an English translation because the one into Finnish isn’t good enough.

The decisions we make on car parts involve relatively small sums, but when we’re buying cars, we are making 10 000€ – 20 000€ decisions which are based, in part, on machine translated information. Of course there is some risk involved but we are car dealers – risk is what we do!

How did we come up with the idea of using Google Translate? Everyone does Google! We started using it 3 years ago. We had a need to get some kind of idea on information in another language quickly and that was the fastest way to do it.

If we couldn’t use machine translation for this, it would slow down our operations.

Mary, machine translation researcher

Recently I’ve gotten interested in historical machine translation (bet you didn’t know that exists!) I found a fascinating study of some of the first users of machine translation. They were using the Russian-English system developed at Georgetown University in the 1960s. Most were scientists who lived and worked either in the U.S. or in Europe. The study was very comprehensive, conducted mostly through interviews with the people.

The book also mentions that a user study was done in the same time frame in Russia with users of one of the first systems there, which translated between French and Russian. There is a one-sentence mention that the study had similar results to the American one and that the researcher, Olga Kulagina, was at the time intending to write a book on the system and the user study.

That sends me on a wild goose chase for that user study. I pinpoint 1 book and 1 article by Kulagina in 1979-1982. I start with the book, ordering it through the library’s long-distance loan. Yesterday I get a note that it arrived. I excitedly go to get it and it’s not until I get back to my office that I remember a small but annoying fact.

I don’t know any Russian.

I send a note off to a student asking if they want to help me but I can’t stand to wait for her answer, I have to know right away if the user study is covered. Google Translate app to the rescue! I whip out my phone and start hovering…


This app, as many of you know, is not at its finest in skimming books. I patiently move it through the table of contents, though, and get a fairly decent idea of what kinds of information is in it.

End result: dead end on the user study, looks like it’s not in this book. I’ll have to try the 1982 article. But it’s nice to get an answer so quickly.

And somehow I think that Olga might like the idea of someone reading her work on machine translation through a translation app in their phone.




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!