Warning about Google Translate

IMG_3081I often edit texts for publication which have been written directly in English by non-native speakers (mainly Spaniards, because I can usually decipher what they are trying to say). This is an activity I mostly enjoy because the subject matters are interesting, the quality of the writing is normally not too bad, and the work doesn’t involve a great deal of typing (which gives my arm a rest as I’ve started to suffer from a repetitive strain injury).

This week I had two such jobs, and they couldn’t have been more varied. The first and longer text was relatively straight-forward, but the second contained large chunks that I just couldn’t get my head around at all. Having struggled to the end, I sent it back to the agency with comments, asking for clarification of certain points, and a fair number of highlighted sentences which were not only grammatically incorrect, but virtually incomprehensible to boot.

grammatically incorrect, virtually incomprehensible sentences

Apparently I am far too naïve, as the agency’s suspicions were aroused immediately. I thought the writer was just one of those people who overestimate their foreign language skills. In fact, since some parts of the text didn’t have any grammar mistakes and read relatively well, I had assumed two authors had worked on it, with vastly different results. My project manager, however, after consulting the end client and discovering there was actually a Spanish version, ran this through Google Translate, and the result was a perfect match for the text I had been sent.

The client was obviously hoping to save money by getting a translation done for an editing price. This has, however, backfired big time, since they will now have to pay for both my editing time—even though it was impossible for me to provide them with a finished product fit for publication due to the abysmal quality of the original text—and a translation.

some meanings had been completely distorted

Nevertheless, the part of this story that has surprised me the most is not that the client was trying to pull a fast one (in this day and age that was bound to happen eventually). As I mentioned above, there were sections of the Google-translated text which were mostly error-free. I thought this might be an indication that the tool is not all bad, despite its glaring faults. But as it turns out, upon analysis of the source and target texts, these sentences, although they sounded alright, did not actually say the same as the original Spanish, and some meanings had been completely distorted.

be very careful when you use free tools such as Google Translate

The lesson here, especially if you are a client, is to be very careful when you use free tools such as Google Translate. They can be great (sometimes) for getting the general gist of something you don’t understand, and I’ve often used them myself for that purpose when I’m not familiar with the language. But they cannot be used for professional translations. If you need your text in another language, you’ll just have to bite the bullet and pay for a translator to do a decent job for you. And yes, it will cost more than an editing job, a lot more. But the outcome (if you use a translator who knows their onions) will be worth it.

Version française

Versión en castellano

This post was first published on 14/11/2013 on my previous blog.

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