Is the Google Translate widget any good? In a word, no. That sound you hear? People are laughing at your website.
If you use Google Chrome, you’ve seen the Google Translate widget before. When you visit a website that’s in Spanish, a Google pop-up reads, “This page is in Spanish. Would you like to translate it into English?”
And, if your Spanish is rusty, you click on “Translate.” Voilà! The page you’re reading is instantly translated.
There’s a major drawback to the Google Translate widget: the translation it produces can be wrong.
Or there’s the other scenario. You land on a page that includes a language selector. Here, the company or blogger has installed the Google Translate widget directly on their site.
All you do is choose the language you want and bam! The text on the page magically appears in Dutch, French, or Chinese, for example.
There’s only one problem: the translation can be garbage. Awful, terrible, bordering on useless. Ridiculous to the point of being embarrassing.
Okay, now you know what my opinion is. Let’s talk about how I arrived at that position.
In this post, I’ll discuss 1) the benefits and limitations of the Google Translate widget, 2) provide examples of Google’s tool in action, and 3) give you a solution that will put your brand in a positive light.
And to the 421,878 businesses currently using the widget, this post is for you.
The (Limited) Benefits of Google Translate…
As I’ve said previously, Google Translate has its advantages. For one, it’s incredibly fast. Insanely fast. I would say “click-of-a-button fast,” but you don’t even need to do that anymore. Go to the GT interface and it will translate for you as you type. (This is how our computer overlords hook us, you know.)
Second, Google Translate is free. As far as your marketing spend in real dollars is concerned, you can’t beat that. But there are definitely hidden costs to “free,” which I discuss below.
…And the (Painfully Real) Costs
In a piece about the pluses and minuses of Google Translate, I wrote about the tool’s biggest drawback: it makes mistakes. Bad ones.
These goofs can render a translation awkward, confusing, or—as two researchers write in the British Medical Journal—extremely dangerous.
There, I said it. A product put out by Alphabet Inc. (the multinational conglomerate that you probably know better as Google) is substandard.
I don’t say that lightly, either. My life is better because of Google. And yours probably is, too.
What search engine do you use? Google, I bet. What email service do you use? Gmail? (If you’re still holding on to that AOL address that you set up in 1996, that’s okay, I guess. It’s a free country.) Where do you store big files for free? Google Drive? Me, too.
So I’m not blasting Google as a company. (After all, any organization that does $16 billion in annual revenue is doing something right.)
I’m writing only about Google Translate, and I’m writing purely from the viewpoint of a professional translator and translation company owner. That’s it. (I had to put that disclaimer in there just in case Larry and Sergey want to suspend my personal Gmail account out of retribution…)
Now, back to the costs of a wrong translation. What does it matter? Well, it depends on the type of error.
A minor grammatical error on a translated page of your website isn’t going to tank your business. In fact, you can find errors in publications that have full-time copy editors.
I’m talking instead about a word or phrase that’s completely wrong. On a Hebrew-language site I came across a few years ago, Google’s tool had rendered the Hebrew word for “Services” in the main navigation menu as “Toilet” in English. (The organization’s website has since been changed.)
Is that a big deal? It depends on your point of view.
For the reader, it might produce nothing more than a giggle or a moment of confusion. For the organization, however, it could be embarrassing. (In this case, it was the website of a translators’ association!)
Let’s look at what happens when Google’s tool handles your translation.
Case Study: The Google Translate Widget in Action
My intention is not to embarrass Fodor’s here. It’s simply to demonstrate the, um, lack of linguistic finesse (that’s diplomatic, isn’t it?) of the Google Translate widget.
I visited the site of this travel industry giant and saw the Google Translate widget. I’m a curious language nerd, so I clicked on “French” from the language selector at the bottom of the page.
The first image below is the original English site. The second image is Fodor’s site after the Google Translate widget took it into a back alley and beat the tar out of it.
Where to begin? Well, in no particular order…
- “Features” are not Caractéristiques in French—at least not here. In this context, the word features refers to feature articles, which should be translated as articles or reportages in French. The word caractéristique means “distinctive trait,” so you might talk about the caractéristiques of a material, for example.
- Look at the sponsored story in the top row, far right. The name of the advertiser is Discover it (a Discover credit card). Not in French, though! Since Google’s tool doesn’t know when to keep its mouth shut, it translates everything it can. The result is word-for-word translation, En Découvrez ce, a grammatically impossible and meaningless French phrase. (I wonder how the folks at Discover feel about the slight…)
- So many words are left in English that Fodor’s might decide it wants its money back. (How do you refund “free”?) Even if your high school French is rusty, you know that coolest, airport, and best things under-the-radar are not the language of Molière. (And the last one might not even be English.)
- There are problems with word order. When the Google Translate widget doesn’t translate a word, it generally leaves it in the same position in the sentence. So you get Coolest Hôtels dans les Catskills, a French word order no-no.
A Few “What If” Scenarios
Still not convinced that Google Translate’s plugin isn’t actually that good at translation? Then consider the following examples.
I copied some text from the websites of foreign companies or organizations and then had Google’s tool convert it to English. We can see what would happen if the Google Translate widget were used on these sites.
BBVA Bancomer (a retail bank in Mexico)
I pasted the Spanish text from a page about life insurance into Google Translate. Here’s the result:
From the second year of life of the policy grant funeral expenses and benefit from additional coverage of the third year of accidental death, it is independent coverage of death is given .
I’m no life insurance expert, but I’m confident that I could write a few English paragraphs about life insurance that would make more sense than the above, which is nothing more than textual vomit.
Gründerszene (a German tech blog)
Companies aren’t the only digital entities with brand identities. Blogs have them, too. And I’m fairly certain that the good folks behind tech blog Gründerszene are glad that they didn’t use the Google Translate widget.
From the home page, I clicked on the first article I saw. Then I copied and pasted a paragraph at random into Google Translate. The result? Sheer lunacy.
It may not quite believe that this is the place . A house in a residential area of Berlin , right near a pedestrian area . Here is a three-year old startup have its headquarters ? A tiny doorbell claiming the least . Further up the staircase to make empty packaging of a well-known technology provider wide.
How does a tiny doorbell “claim the least”? And what’s the bit about empty packaging?
Despite being fluent in English and having trained as a translator at the graduate level, I can’t even begin to decipher what this means. (German speakers, I call upon you! Check out the article and then let me know in the comments how the above text should read.)
台灣時報 (Táiwān Shíbào, a Chinese newspaper)
You’ve read this far, so you deserve a laugh. You see, Google’s tool can produce a reasonably understandable gist for Western languages such as French or Spanish. You can usually figure out the overall meaning despite the errors and awkward phrasings.
But Chinese? Fuhgeddaboutit.
The Bane of Machine Translation
Character-based languages are notoriously difficult for machine translation algorithms. If there’s not a perfect 1:1 correspondence between English and Spanish, then you know that Google’s translation widget is going to have some trouble with Traditional Chinese characters.
I copied the text in the bulleted list on the front page of the Taiwan Times. And then I let Google’s tool work its magic.
Except it was more like black magic here. While a few phrases are clear (so gorgeous! NASA announced the high-quality solar flares), others are impenetrable (Yong Heng Chong Wen Jiabao evacuated the night standing statue trees change).
- Furen University student intends to up fees rebound Nupi black box
- Hanka ! SPIL terminate cooperation with Chinese private purple case
- Taiwan an important milestone in astronomy telescope successfully launched
- Yong Heng Chong Wen Jiabao evacuated the night standing statue trees change
- Xiao Heiwen explosion ! Mayor Warning : parterre township fall
- so gorgeous! NASA announced the high-quality solar flares
- Decahedron volts haze PM2.5 secondhand smoke causes lung cancer surpassed
As with the other examples, the Taiwan Times was wise to leave well enough alone. It’s a Chinese daily for a Chinese-speaking audience, so there’s no need to offer an English “translation” that would give readers a headache or make them laugh uncontrollably (or both).
You can guess what my parting words will be, right? Don’t use the Google Translate widget if you care at all about the accuracy of text on your website.
The tool doesn’t even follow all of a given language’s “rules,” and when the source text breaks those rules—abbreviations, jargon, shorthand, omission of articles, slang, etc.—Google Translate is lost.
In an evaluation conducted by two medical researchers, 42% of the translations that Google Translate provided were wrong.
The $64,000 Question
So now I turn to you, dear business owner. If you don’t do things on the cheap when it comes to other crucial parts of your business—employee salaries, equipment, web design, advertising, etc.—then why would you skimp on translation?
Free is enticing. I know. I can be roped in by the offer of “free” as easily as the next guy. But in the case of Google’s translation widget, “free” ends up being costly.
Remember the British Medical Journal study that I cited at the top of the article? Less than 58% of the translations provided by Google’s translation tool were accurate. What’s the takeaway? More than 42% of the translations were wrong.
Ask yourself, “Is it all right if 42% of my web copy is wrong?”
So if you care about your brand identity and you want to reach foreign markets, consider using professional translation services.
You don’t have to have your site translated into 103 languages. (Do you think that you’ll really get heavy traffic in Tamil?) In fact, you only need a dozen languages to reach 80% of the world’s population. Twelve languages out of approximately 6,500!
Even just one additional language—properly translated—on your site will give the search engines more pages to index, which can only help your marketing efforts.
Yes, it will cost you money. But the value of conveying your message accurately in Spanish is worth it, isn’t it? Don’t you want your Spanish-speaking readers to understand your message rather than laugh at it?
For more about Google and translation, read about the genius marketing move of including Star Wars language Aurebesh in its suite of languages.