by

A screenshot of Google Translate

Your best friend and worst enemy.

We’ve all been guilty of using online translators at one time or another. Maybe you were just translating some Japanese you found online, or trying to figure out what that Jpop song just said. Or maybe you were using online translators to finish your Japanese homework. (Don’t worry, I won’t tell your sensei.)

And even though we’ve written about how you really shouldn’t use online translators and how they can go terribly wrong, I won’t judge you. I definitely have used Google Translate late at night for my homework for Japanese class. But have you ever wondered about how online translators actually work, and why you shouldn’t use them?

There are two main ways that computers translate one human language to another: one based on rules, and one based on something a little more complicated.

Rules, Rules, Rules

The first and older one is based on rules. A computer is programmed with the basic rules of a language and is given a dictionary. Then, when somebody puts in some text, the computer translates the text according to those rules and gives you a rough translation.

However, that’s proven to be a really crappy way to translate things because pretty much every single language in the world has tons of exceptions to its rules and a lot of the time, a translation will just end up with something that’s garbled and nonsensical.

A screenshot of Yahoo's Babel FishFriends don’t let friends use Babel Fish.

A great example of this is Google’s early version of Google Translate. In the early days of Google Translate, Google founder Sergey Brin got an email written in Korean from a Google fanboy. But when Brin plugged in the email to Google Translate, he got the translation “The sliced raw fish shoes it wishes. Google green onion thing!” Not quite what the author had in mind.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

The other, more recent way that computers translate one human language to another is with huge databases of official, human translations. That means that these programs are given translations from places like the United Nations and the European Union and use those to make translations. This kind of translation is called statistical machine translation.

A teacher and student standing in front of a chalkboard covered in statistical equations.Statistical translation is what Google Translate currently uses, which is why it sometimes seems better, more natural than other translators. (I’m lookin’ at you, Babel Fish.) And statistical translation definitely works well with Google’s way of doing things: statistical translation requires lots of disk space (for the databases) and computing power, which Google has in spades.

Why Online Translators Suck

But there are big problems with both methods. There’s a lot of nuance in language that’s hard for a machine to catch, machines have problems with metaphors, and there are things like slang and different dialects that even a native speaker might have a hard time with. So while machine translations have come a long way since Sergey Brin heard about Google’s “green onion thing,” there’s still a long way to go before us humans are rendered obsolete. (Humans: 1, Computers: 70,136,459,345.)

And what lies ahead for translation tools? It’s hard to say at the moment. At this point, computer scientists are trying hard to make statistical translation better and better by adding more and more information to pull from. But like I pointed out above, this method has its limits.

It’s hard to think of a way that translation tools can stay ahead of the curve, so it looks like for the foreseeable future, human translation will reign supreme.

If you’re interested to read more, check out these two New York Times articles: “Google’s Computing Power Refines Translation Tool,” and “I, Translator.”

P.S. In point, in the continuation of Twitter.
P.P.S. As our for the sake of, the favorite, Facebook.


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  • Andrew Prowse

    Hello! I graduated college with a BS in computer science, but Japanese is my life’s other passion, and I’ve been following Tofugu for quite a while now. I love the blog.

    While in college, another student and I worked on a very rudimentary word-rearranger that would take an English sentence and rearrange the words as they would appear in a Japanese sentence. The theory we based this on is called parametrized language theory, as described in the book The Atoms of Language, by Mark Baker. The book is fairly non-technical, but using the concepts in there, we were able to come up with a surprisingly effective algorithm for word rearrangement, albeit for the rather simple examples we used.

    I’m not sure if there is a future in this theory for machine translation(it’s really only a part of what the whole process would be), but it’s definitely an interesting idea, and I’d recommend the book to anyone who is interested in this sort of stuff(and can get through a few technical linguistic terms). As a bonus, Japanese is one of the main languages the book uses as an example.

  • Anonymous

    Thankyou for the insight about how online translators work. ^_^!

    Here is my opinion: I don`t think one shouldn`t use online translators, one just has to learn how to use them in the right way. For that, there are a few things you should have in mind when using an online translator. 1) Online translators are not perfect. 2) They can help you, but they won`t replace you. 3) They usually don`t put the translation in context, so you as a human being have to put the translation in context. 4) They are great for resolving some small questions (for example related to the spelling of similar words, the meaning of words you don`t know or you are unsure of, etc.) 5) Some can give you an idea of the pronunciation of words (it sometimes has helped me with my japanese homework XD!).

  • Michael

    http://translationparty.com/
    A useful site showing the true joys of online translators!! :D  None of that was sarcastic, I swear… >.>

  • Hailey

    I only try to use online translators when I already kind of know what I’m doing, but I want to double check (I really just used it with my spanish homework in high school, not so much for Japanese). It helped me along, but I would know enough to know if what was translated was blatantly wrong.

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Christopher

    The best time to use online translators is when you are really bored and want to see what kind of nonsense Google Translate spits out. Honestly, with all of the work it takes to use an online translator you might as well use an online dictionary. If you are trying to understand Japanese, there is jisho.org, there are plenty Spanish to English online dictionaries, and just about every other language has an online dictionary for you to use.

    My point is, online translators are for laughs, online dictionaries are what you should use.

  • Kaona

    It would be so cool if there could be hundreds of people for every language ready to translate everything people are putting into online translators for a 98% more accurate translation. ^_^
    It seems kind of impossible, though.

  • Anonymous

    Of course, though, if you’re looking for a good laugh, online translators can be pretty tough to beat.  Write a sentence, run it through a couple of different languages, and see what happens XD

    Of course, though, I did get a fantastic translation from Google Translate when it was French (from the French wikipedia page for ‘mellorine’); maybe that’s because it’s a more common language and has a lot more people to correct it when it acts up?

  • フランスワイン~

    Probably also because French is a lot closer to English than Japanese is.

  • Anonymous

    Ah.  That would do it.

  • chcgann

    I would never trust an online translator for personal writing but they are a LIFE SAVER for me, being illiterate, living in Japan. I can have website translated enough so I can find the access page and transfer the location to my English Google map to get places, I can understand where a Japanese Facebook friend is talking about food or homework, I can look up single words. On my iPhone, I can “reverse” translate and let a Japanese speaker use the Japanese keyboard to let me know what they are trying to say. One translated word helps alot with “communication charades.” ; – ) 

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    ♥ jisho.org. It’s a great site and I would definitely definitely definitely recommend it to anybody who is trying to learn Japanese.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yes, that’s awesome. That’s basically what I was going for with the P.S.s, except I manually switched between Google Translate and Babel Fish.

  • MilkyChoco52

    I usually just use google translate to translate single words, but the biggest problem I have with it that it will sometimes tell me the Japanese pronunciation of an English word rather than the actual Japanese word. 

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I hadn’t heard of The Atoms of Language before. It sounds interesting, I’ll be sure to check it out! And if you’re interested in reading more about what I wrote about, I have a book suggestion for you too: The Most Human Human. It’s about the Turing Test and as a comp sci major you might find it interesting.

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Christopher

    I love all of options on jisho.org, like the search kanji by radicals and that you can choose to only see common words in the results. It has helped me a lot so far since I don’t know many kanji yet.

  • Anonymous

    I have, very rarely, had babelfish give me a better translation than google. I can’t think of any examples right now though.

    I think online translators have their place. You have to know what you’re doing, but when I’ll use it for some small things. Or if I just want information without all the nuances so I don’t need to translate it perfectly, and if it’s off a little I can figure out what’s going on.

  • Foozlesprite

    One of the blogs I follow is written by Pippihoney, a Japanese jazz singer and stage magician with a really adorable pet duck.  I usually just translate the whole page with Google translate for a quick read, but I end up hovering over stuff (to see the original Japanese) and using my own Japanese deduction skills to figure out what she’s actually trying to say more often than not.  She uses lots of baby language, slang, and colloquialisms, especially when she’s writing as her duck…and Google certainly does NOT do a great job with it.  There are disembodied honorifics floating around all over, and her emoticons are usually floating in a sea of nonsensical text.  Not to mention, the duck’s name is めめ, which Google often tries to combine with other kana to make words that really aren’t in the text.  So yeah…don’t trust online translations, lol.

  • Foozlesprite

    One of the blogs I follow is written by Pippihoney, a Japanese jazz singer and stage magician with a really adorable pet duck.  I usually just translate the whole page with Google translate for a quick read, but I end up hovering over stuff (to see the original Japanese) and using my own Japanese deduction skills to figure out what she’s actually trying to say more often than not.  She uses lots of baby language, slang, and colloquialisms, especially when she’s writing as her duck…and Google certainly does NOT do a great job with it.  There are disembodied honorifics floating around all over, and her emoticons are usually floating in a sea of nonsensical text.  Not to mention, the duck’s name is めめ, which Google often tries to combine with other kana to make words that really aren’t in the text.  So yeah…don’t trust online translations, lol.

  • Foozlesprite

    One of the blogs I follow is written by Pippihoney, a Japanese jazz singer and stage magician with a really adorable pet duck.  I usually just translate the whole page with Google translate for a quick read, but I end up hovering over stuff (to see the original Japanese) and using my own Japanese deduction skills to figure out what she’s actually trying to say more often than not.  She uses lots of baby language, slang, and colloquialisms, especially when she’s writing as her duck…and Google certainly does NOT do a great job with it.  There are disembodied honorifics floating around all over, and her emoticons are usually floating in a sea of nonsensical text.  Not to mention, the duck’s name is めめ, which Google often tries to combine with other kana to make words that really aren’t in the text.  So yeah…don’t trust online translations, lol.

  • Foozlesprite

    One of the blogs I follow is written by Pippihoney, a Japanese jazz singer and stage magician with a really adorable pet duck.  I usually just translate the whole page with Google translate for a quick read, but I end up hovering over stuff (to see the original Japanese) and using my own Japanese deduction skills to figure out what she’s actually trying to say more often than not.  She uses lots of baby language, slang, and colloquialisms, especially when she’s writing as her duck…and Google certainly does NOT do a great job with it.  There are disembodied honorifics floating around all over, and her emoticons are usually floating in a sea of nonsensical text.  Not to mention, the duck’s name is めめ, which Google often tries to combine with other kana to make words that really aren’t in the text.  So yeah…don’t trust online translations, lol.

  • Foozlesprite

    One of the blogs I follow is written by Pippihoney, a Japanese jazz singer and stage magician with a really adorable pet duck.  I usually just translate the whole page with Google translate for a quick read, but I end up hovering over stuff (to see the original Japanese) and using my own Japanese deduction skills to figure out what she’s actually trying to say more often than not.  She uses lots of baby language, slang, and colloquialisms, especially when she’s writing as her duck…and Google certainly does NOT do a great job with it.  There are disembodied honorifics floating around all over, and her emoticons are usually floating in a sea of nonsensical text.  Not to mention, the duck’s name is めめ, which Google often tries to combine with other kana to make words that really aren’t in the text.  So yeah…don’t trust online translations, lol.

  • http://profiles.google.com/moroha2 Derek Bassett

    What I have always done is use the text glossing option Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC.  It translates only individual words and doesn’t try to do anything with grammar.  This is good for people that know enough Japanese to be able work out the grammar of a sentence without much problem, but still run into a lot of words you can’t read yet.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Agreed. Jim Breen is pretty much in a whole other category than conventional online translators.

  • http://www.blueterritory.com Arisa

    I generally only use it to translate words I don’t quite remember. Those moments when words are at the tip of your tongue. So generally I only translate from my native language (Dutch) to English and back. But I have used Google Translate to try and decipher Indonesian, which pretty much returned garbage without fail!

  • http://twitter.com/Tyriar Daniel Imms

    Yes I do this too. I’m a software developer also so I know exactly what’s going on and why they’re bad and why they’re awesome. I’m always kind of upset when I tweet knowing that my mates can figure out basically what I said by pasting it into google translate :P

  • Dolphinwing

    I used google translate and just plugged in a few simple things. I typed “どこからきましたか?” and it gave me “where are you fram” then I wrote “そうだね” and it said “you’re right” so I guess it’s not too terrible! lol

  • Jonathan Dookie

    From, what I understand from machine learning, and how we learn (which is in someways statistical and other ways rules), I’m pretty sure the statistical approach will work after some more development. Though I think we should quantify context into it, which may or may not be integrated in with the statistics.

  • Anonymous

    I think google translator is useful if you know both languages well. For example, when I have to do some translations for homework (from my prim. language to english or viceversa) I sometimes don’t know how should I start a sentence or what word should I use (as u all know there are several words, meaning one thing, but not all are useful in  the same context). In this case(s) Google translator is a bliss, because I do know if it’s a legit word or if the syntax of the sentence is correct.

    If I were to translate to or from japanese I would have no idea if I got it correct (besides those few words from textfugu :P)

  • Airious Luna

    I’m just about finished with my Undergrad degree is Japanese, therefore I love reading Tofufu articles that can give advanced learners even more tips. So although this article is soo true regarding online translators, especially how they deal with grammar, or even worse paragraphs in Japanese, I feel that it doesn’t discuss some things that actually Google translate is incredibly useful for.

    For example things like 「気を付けて」, which is more of a set phrase, is more difficult to look up on most electronic dictionaries because it isn’t just a noun or a verb. Especially for a beginner who has never seen that phrase before, they will probably look them up separately in a dictionary and be really confused. But because Google translate has that database of translations, most set phrases are translated fairly well.

    I personally love using Google translate in conjunction with Rikai-chan. I also use it fairly often as a Thesaurus, because with single words it will often give you several choices at the bottom of the text box.

    Although because I want to become an interpreter, I’m super happy online translators are still terrible. :p

  • Kathryn OHalloran

    I think online translators are good for getting the overall concept of text – and then you can look up individual words for better clarity.  If you are looking at a website with shitloads of kanji and no idea of the navigation, google translate can get you heading in the direction.

  • Anonymous

    Online Translators are good if you want a dictionary. But for Japanese, that’s already covered by Jisho.org. So they fail. That’s why the best way to translate something is to ask someone who can read it. Or go to a site where you can get a human translation.

  • Anonymous

    I see online translators useful only for specific words that I don’t understand. Never for complete sentences. I look to Tae Kim for that.

  • ewoitwoin,

    I find it helpful for doing korean->japanese when I cannot figure out for the love of god what conjugation they did in the korean… which makes it impossible to loooook it up.

  • http://twitter.com/mygengo_dev myGengo DevCommunity

    (full disclosure – I’m a co-founder and CTO of myGengo)

    Just wanted to share that we interviewed Jim this past summer. We love the work and contributions he’s given for the J ⇄ E community :)

    http://mygengo.com/about-us/blog/jim-breen-wwwjdic/

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    cool, thanks for sharing!

  • Ida

    Well, considering the fact that I am a future teacher of English I am all for online dictionaries as a convenient resource and for sure I will encourage my pupils to use them. However google translate would only get you in trouble in my class. The whole idea that there is a machine actively translating full size texts sounds impossible because even the “human” translators loose nuances and cultural colloquial expressions in translation. Something is always lost in translation. If/When any of you have tried translating texts you have probably figured this out as well :).

    I still use google translator sometimes but mainly when I want to understand some very foreign language to me (Turkish, Korean, Portugese) with some very common expressions (HBD, Thank you etc) Even then I think they are not very accurate. My native language is Finnish which means that I basically have to check the meanings through English. The translator definitely does not know Finnish very well. Only the “popular” languages are presented there.
     

    Btw. trying to learn Japanese and this site definitely got me motivated again :) Interesting conversations from a language students point of view as well. Thanks!

  • Cats_in_Pajamas

    Have you used any Japanese online translators? They’re not perfect but they’re better than most English ones from my experience. http://honyaku.yahoo.co.jp/

  • Rafael

    If i´m not mistaken, the common words are gathered from their usage in newspapers. So verbs like やる, which should be at the top of the list, appear as not common. You shouldn’t always use the common words check.

  • Bufan Wang

    They can use Indians for cheap translation of Indian languages, Chinese people for cheap Chinese translations, South-East Asians for cheap SEA languages, Africans for cheap French, Spanish, Portuguese translations.
    TRANSLATION SWEATSHOPS!
    They could fund the 2 dollar endeavour with ads :D

  • SaraCarte

    yes i agree Online translator are bad but we try the best for me i found Double translation is the best ”

    Through Our Dictionary You can translate text from and to more than
    51 Languages easily ,With just one click you get double translation one
    from Google translator Other from Bing translator two are completely
    different so you can compare between them and choose best translation
    for you . ” >> http://www.dutranslation.com/