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Does Google Translate Suck?

What's different about Google Translate than other previous attempts at machine translation?

Before I get into the main part of the blog post, I want to preface this whole thing by saying that I am well aware of the problems of doing language translation by a machine. It's an inherently difficult problem.

My issue here isn't so much with Google Translate as it is with the public perception of Google. I've read a few reviews of Google Translate and seen some blog posts. The general consensus is that because Google built it, its awesome and flawless. People think that Google is building this massive, soon-to-become-self-aware giant brain in the cloud that is sucking intelligence out of search patterns to be used for some world dominating purpose in the future. This is rubbish because we know Google doesn't start Judgement Day, Cyberdyne does. Sheesh, anybody knows that.

So, what's different about Google Translate than other previous attempts at machine translation? The biggest is that Google is using collective intelligence like it uses on its search engine to cull human-supplied translation bits and add those to its existing translation rules. The theory is that it makes for a better engine and should make the translations more in line with what a human would expect.

So how does it fare? You tell me:

My Input Google's Output Actual Meaning
内閣は倒れるだろうということだ Cabinet and they will fall They say that the cabinet (govt) will fall
その先生は病人だということが分かった The teacher found that it's sick The teacher turned out to be sick
私達は彼の死を悲しんだ We mourned the death of his We mourned his death
彼の殺人の動機は何だ
What's his motive for murder
What's his motive for murder?

So this is actually pretty enlightening. I have to admit that I was really skeptical when I tried it out. Just like every other machine sentence translator on the planet, if you attempt to use a Google translation to glean meaning from a web page or from a paragraph or even a single sentence, you're probably screwed. The first three sentences I have in the chart show that while verbs and nouns are translated properly, you actually lose a lot of meaning and context in translation. For example, the second sentence - relying on the Google translation I don't know if the teacher is sick or something else - but it's pretty damn close to accurate. The second to last sentence is almost spot on and finally, the last sentence is a perfect translation.

So the verdict is this: the current state of machine language translation sucks and will continue to suck for some time. However, I now know that if I want to get a rough stab at a translation of something I am going to try Google Translate first. Among all the other engines I could find, Google's was far and away the best.

For example, when I plug in the Japanese for "what's his motive for murder?" Babelfish spits out the following: Motive of at that homicide is what.

Someday this won't matter and we'll all have universal translators in our ears. It also doesn't matter much because, as Hollywood has shown us time and time again, all aliens from far and distant worlds speak English.

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By Kevin Hoffman

Kevin Hoffman, editor-in-chief of SYS-CON's iPhone Developer's Journal, has been programming since he was 10 and has written everything from DOS shareware to n-tier, enterprise web applications in VB, C++, Delphi, and C. Hoffman is coauthor of Professional .NET Framework (Wrox Press) and co-author with Robert Foster of Microsoft SharePoint 2007 Development Unleashed. He authors The .NET Addict's Blog at .NET Developer's Journal.

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