What Google Translate Gets Wrong

What Google Translate Gets Wrong
September 20, 2023

In a bizarre turn of events that had New Yorkers scratching their heads, it seemed as if Mayor Eric Adams had taken on a surprising partnership with the Chinese government to revolutionize the state. Recently, a curious reporter from a Chinese-language news site decided to put Google Translate to the test. They clicked the “Translate” button on a New York City agency’s website, hoping for a smooth transition from English to Chinese. What they got, however, were translations far from perfect. 

Instead of New York City’s grand plans, they found phrases like “Building a City Together with the Communist Party of China.” It seemed like the CPC (City Planning Commission) had undergone a political makeover, and now its mission was something akin to diplomatic city-building with Chinese characteristics. 

It turns out that the government uncovered a hiccup in their quest to reach the expanding Chinese-speaking population in New York City. Google Translate had turned every CPC into the Chinese Communist Party, leaving everyone to wonder whether a political revolution had hit the city council chambers overnight. To make matters even more entertaining, it even translated “Contact DHS” into “Contact Department of Homeland Security” instead of “Department of Homeless Services.” While city officials scrambled to make manual fixes, many found the situation quite comical. Immigrant rights advocates, however, pointed out that these mishaps shed light on a more profound issue: the challenges immigrant communities face in accessing accurate information.

Don’t get it wrong though; Google Translate is a handy tool that is helping bridge linguistic gaps, as it supports roughly 133 languages. However, when translating important information, such as a government website like the example above, using Google Translate can often get you in trouble. While it can serve as a quick, free, and accessible tool, it should only be used casually and in informal situations. Regarding business matters, leaning on a professional translation service provider is vital if you want your organization to be taken seriously. 

How it works

It might be shocking to learn that Google Translate does not attempt to grasp the full meaning of sentences as a human translator does. Instead, it relies on statistical patterns, making it more about math and probabilities than genuine understanding.

Google relies on extensive databases of human-translated content, deeming them trustworthy. These databases are central to its translation process. Using statistical matches, Google determines that the word or phrase ‘a’ is most commonly translated as the word or phrase ‘b’ in a particular language. This becomes their default choice for translations, aiming for the best odds of accuracy.

Each sentence is broken into components, which are words or phrases with corresponding matches in its database. These components are then analyzed to identify the most frequently occurring translation for each one, which is then strung together to form the sentence’s translation, which can, in turn, lead to errors.

Some common issues and errors that Google Translate may encounter:

The example mentioned at the beginning of this article is just one situation where Google Translate gets language wrong. There is a long-growing list of circumstances where the free software fails us. Although these faults can be quite comical in unprofessional settings, for a business, mistakes like these can lead to a lack of confidence and trust in your brand and your organization not being taken seriously. 

If you are wondering how Google Translate can make such mistakes, below are some common errors and issues that can occur. 

  • Contextual understanding: Google Translate often struggles with understanding the context of a sentence or text. It may translate individual words correctly but fail to capture the intended meaning when combined in a specific way.
  • Idioms and expressions: Idioms, cultural expressions, and slang can be challenging for machine translation systems. Google Translate may translate them literally, leading to awkward or nonsensical translations.
  • Complex sentence structure: Elaborate sentence structures, such as those found in legal documents or literature, can be challenging for Google Translate to handle accurately.
  • Ambiguity: When a word or phrase has multiple meanings, Google Translate may choose the wrong one if there isn’t enough context to determine the intended meaning.
  • Gender and pronoun issues: Some languages have gendered nouns and pronouns, which can lead to inaccuracies in translation. Google Translate may not always get the gender right, causing grammatical and embarrassing errors.
  • Cultural sensitivity: Google Translate may not always be sensitive to cultural nuances or political correctness. It might inadvertently produce translations that are offensive or inappropriate.
  • Spelling and typos: If there are spelling mistakes or typos in the input text, Google Translate may not correct them and could produce incorrect translations based on the erroneous input.
  • Language pairs: The accuracy of Google Translate can vary depending on the language pair. Some languages have more robust translation models than others, and translations between less commonly spoken languages may be less accurate.
  • Proper nouns: Names of people, places, or specific brands can be mistranslated, as Google Translate may not recognize them or might offer phonetic translations instead of accurate equivalents.
  • Technical jargon: In specialized fields or industries with technical terminology, Google Translate may not provide accurate translations, as it might not have access to domain-specific dictionaries.
  • Length and tone: Translations can sometimes be longer or shorter than the original text, leading to discrepancies in tone and style.
  • Audio translation: Google Translate’s audio translation feature may not always provide proper pronunciation, especially for less common languages.

Privacy concerns

As a business, it’s essential to consider the privacy concerns that arise with using Google Translate. If you use it to translate sensitive or confidential information, there’s a risk that this information could be exposed to Google or other entities. This could be problematic for organizations dealing with sensitive data. 

Privacy policy

Google Translate’s privacy policy explicitly states that Google employs automated systems to analyze user content to deliver customized search results, personalized ads, and other tailored features based on users’ interactions with their services. Consequently, any confidential information you input into Google Translate ceases to be confidential, as it becomes subject to Google’s algorithm, which reads, listens to, and scans every bit of information you submit to the platform.

Security measures

It is also wise to acknowledge that Google Translate operates in the cloud, meaning your translation requests are processed on Google’s servers. This can result in the data you enter being temporarily stored on Google’s infrastructure, which leaves us to wonder how confidential and secure it is. While the cloud uses HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) for security, Google Translate does not use end-to-end encryption for the translations you request, which provides a much higher level of protection. End-to-end encryption means that data is encrypted on the sender’s side and only decrypted on the receiver’s side, with no intermediate party having access to the unencrypted data. With Google Translate using only HTTPS, there’s a potential for your translated text to be intercepted or accessed by third parties during transmission. 

It’s essential to be aware of these privacy considerations when using Google Translate and to make informed choices about the data you share and the platform you use for translation, especially if you’re dealing with sensitive information.

To summarize

Using Google Translate as a quick tool for basic translations can be helpful. Still, for important or complex translations, especially those involving legal, medical, or other professional content, it’s advisable to work with a professional translation service provider, like INGCO International, to ensure accuracy, protection, and proper cultural context. Everyone deserves equal access to information. Google Translate, while accessible and free, may not consistently deliver the precision and confidentiality required for your content.

It’s always best to rely on a professional translator for your business needs. INGCO helps organizations translate anything from marketing materials to entire websites, specializing in a variety of leading industries. 

We invite you to connect with one of our specialists to learn more about how INGCO can serve you and your language translation needs.