Found in Translation

Automated language translation by software has been a source of confusion and amusement, yet it has been quietly evolving.

Back in November of 2009, I added Google Translator functionality to, and then asked non-English speakers in the LinkedIn community to comment on the accuracy.

The upshot was that Google had a lot of great features, but automated translation wasn’t one of them.  We had some good fun at my expense, and then without mercy I ripped that code out of my site and laid the idea to rest – or so I thought.

A lot of people from around the world have learned English to varying degrees – convenient for me as I blithely engage in Internet discussions with the merest smattering of words from 18 languages – and I must admire anyone who is conversant, if not fluent, in two or more.

When occasionally someone writes to me in another language, I dutifully run it through the nearest translation mill, reread the ground up mess a half dozen times, craft a response in English, and hope the other guy has better luck than I did.  Usually, he doesn’t.

Last week, an Italian fellow asked for help, and something hit me.  (No, wait, that was the glass door to my patio; and it wasn’t the door’s fault.)  This time, instead of the tedious process of several exchanges for clarification (which clarify little), I simply asked him to carefully rewrite his question in formal Italian.

When I translated his updated question with the Microsoft (Bing) Translator, the result was a thing of beauty requiring virtually no guesswork to understand.

Since I did not know the quality of his translation service, I wrote him a nice long answer in formal English and translated it to Italian.  When I translated that back to English, I was pleased to find it was nearly identical to the original.  Terrific!  But wait:  if there were self-correcting errors going both directions, I would not know the difference.

So I asked a bilingual Italian colleague to look it over.  The quality turned out to be “quite good”, needing only a few minor changes.  My hypothesis is that translations should be considerably more accurate when the originals are composed in a formal style.  After all, if you were to design a translator, would you base it on stable, official dictionary definitions, or on the shifting sands of temporary fads?

Before you begin, learn the difference between “to” and “too”, “than” and “then”, and other common mistakes.  Avoid idioms, buzzwords, quirky spellingz, contractions, abbreviations, artistic use of punctuation and special characters, and similar limitations.

Avoid ambiguous words.  Is your “Free” offering “liberated” from slavery, “loose” instead of attached, or is it at “no cost”?  Is your “Hot” deal “X rated”, “incinerated”, “stolen”, or just (potentially) “popular”?

The better you know and use your native language, the better your translations should be.

If you have performed successful automated translation tests on other formally written language pairs, please share your results, stating which languages and translator you tested, and your overall impression on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being worst).

Thanks for reading, and thanks in advance for sharing.


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