Posted by: patenttranslator | February 19, 2012

Who’s Afraid of Google Translate and Other Machine Translation Programs?

When the media writer Ken Auletta once interviewed Bill Gates and asked him “What is it that keeps you awake at night?”, Bill Gates replied that he was not afraid of his competitors, but that he was wondering about two guys working in a garage on something that he did not know about. And Bill Gates was exactly right on the money, as usual. The only thing that he got wrong in this case was that two guys named Sergey Brim and Larry Page were working out of a dorm room rather than out of a garage on something that they would later call Google.

Google is now bigger and more powerful than Microsoft and its machine translation programs, called Google Translate, is now as far as I can tell the most popular machine translation software available for free on the Internet.

Should human translators be afraid of the competition from this and other MT programs offering for free “the same thing” that human translators are providing, often for a lot of money? Is Google Translate “one day soon” going to replace most human translators, which is something that so many people seem to firmly believe? Will human translators soon be replaced by software, which is what happened in the last decade or so to many bank tellers and mid level managers, among many other occupations.

I am a translator who is using Google Translate and other machine translation programs frequently. This week, for example, I was putting Google Translate to work on documents that I was translating from Russian, German and Japanese to English.

I love the fact that instead of having to look in my office for different dictionaries in different languages, I can simply go to one URL and type something in Russian, German or Japanese to look at a translation, although first I have to make sure that I am typing on the correct virtual keyboard for each language.

For Japanese I use one of the virtual Japanese keyboards which is built into Windows, for European languages I use the site as it offers the best solution for people who are used to typing in English and who need to type something quickly in another language.

Google Translate was very good at many things that can be really hard for me. For example, because I don’t translate Russian very much, I was not familiar with Russian abbreviations for various government organs, or even for electronic components, such as EPROM. But all I had to do was type them in Russian on the left side and the correct answer magically appeared in English on the right side of Google Translate.

The same was true about heavy legalese in a German document that I was translating this week: Instead of having to spend a lot of time looking through the pages in my copy of Romain’s Dictionary of Legal and Commercial Terms or look for an equivalent English legal term on the Internet, I received my answer from Google Translate instantly from my keyboard.

Even メタセシス重合 (metaseshisu shugo) was also translated correctly from Japanese as metathesis polymerization.

But when I look at the machine translation of a WIPO PCT patent application from Japanese to English, which may or may not have been done with Google Translate because WIPO is using several MT programs, the MT product gives only a very rough idea of what the Japanese patent application describes. Shorter sentences mostly make sense, longer sentences are mostly incomprehensible.

And if I translate a post on my blog into German, French or Czech, I can’t understand the post at all, regardless of which MT program I try, although I am the one who wrote it.

As one commenter on my blog put it, machine translation tools such as Google Translate are only productivity tools for translators, just like dictionaries, translation memory tools or search engines.

It is understandable that human translators would be afraid of the power of Google Translate because it is a very good machine translation program. But that is all it is. It can be used to replace a human translator for some limited purposes. If you don’t really need to have the exact meaning of the original document in English, MT will often do.

I happen to know that my clients have been using MT for many years. In 2003 I had to call a law firm in California to warn them that I might not be able to deliver a translation of a long Japanese Patent, I remember that it was 8,500 words, because hurricane Isabelle was about to savage East Coast next day and it was likely that I would be without power for several days. “So, what will you do about the translation?” I asked the paralegal. “Oh, we will just have to use machine translation,” she answered.

I did lose power next day, and we were left without power in blistering heat for 5 days, during which period I got to know my neighbors quite well as we decided to barbecue all the meat and sausages left in our refrigerators in my scenic backyard.

Nine years later, this particular law firms is among many patent law firms which are sending me documents for translation from various languages. I may have lost a few more patent translations to the competition of MT, but probably only if the client of the law firm refused to pay the cost of human translation and a decision was made to simply work instead with machine translation.

I don’t think that human translators should be afraid of machine translation. Human creativity and human intellect, two indispensable ingredients of real translation, cannot be replaced by software.

Although I do  think that MT has had and will continue to have a major impact on human translators: It is making us more productive because we can often find answers to our questions much faster now thanks to machine translation.


  1. Some time ago, a client wanted to help us and told us about “this great thing on the internet” where you just type your text and it gives you “the complete translation”. I laughed, and later apologized for laughing. (I couldn’t helpt it.) Sometimes google translator is nice for word suggestions, but I do not think I have ever used anything from it without serious validation work. (I work in the medical field.)


  2. Google Translate translations can be really good sometime.

    But unless you are a translator who knows the source language, how do you know whether it is a correct translation or not? (Because it sounds good)?

    MT has to be validated by a human translator first, just like food in a restaurant has to be validated by real customers first, even pricey entrées prepared by the best of chefs.


  3. Totally concur – with the post, and with the above comments. The other day I went into the video store across the street to rent a movie, and looked at the back of the DVD case where a summary was given (in Spanish), as I did not know anything about the film, and had to laugh out loud, drawing all kinds of quizzical stares from the other customers. It had been so obviously done with MT, that it was comical, and of course, total gibberish. A couple of months back, I received a request for translation of a contract, Spanish to English, I believe it was something like 4K words, to be delivered in 2 hours. My answer was negative for that time frame. The would-be client told me, “just use google translate and then correct it”. Of course I declined and told them I don’t work that way. But I would indeed use google translate as I would a dictionary, as in one or the other case, it is my decision to judge whether the equivalent term is the appropriate one, or the one I am searching for.


  4. Thank you for your comment.

    People who don’t know much about translation think that it must be quite easy to edit a machine translation. But often it is very difficult or even impossible.

    Here is a sample of a machine-translated text of a Japanese patent that I am translating today: “Porous semiconductor layer wa thin layer ni setけta rememberのsemiconductor materials wo焼intoしたさTransportation ni thin layer wo setけte焼into su ru operation wo Qiao ri returnしてthe hopeのthickみとsu ruと, a good fitnessでthou ru.
     The porous quality of the semiconductor layer wa,フレキシブHikaru transparent substrate 12とcontactしていte mo exposure toしていna ku te moどちTransportationでmoo yoいga ryo whoのinterval wa na ruべku shortいMizuhoうga yoい.”

    There are at least a dozen screw-ups like this in this particular machine translation of a patent that has about 10,000 words.

    But even this MT is still good enough for me to use it as a dictionary.

    And thanks so much for tweeting my posts!


  5. You are welcome! It’s always a pleasure to tweet your posts, as in addition to being well written, they are informative, expound eminently reasonable points of view, and on top of it all, throw into the mix music videos that take me back to my teens (hmmm….let’s rather say infancy, so that I don’t come across as entirely last-century vintage!). Greetings.


  6. False modesty aside, I think that my greatest contribution to sound principles of modern translation theory is probably in the music videos on my blog.


    • Haha! 🙂 I certainly won’t argue with that….


  7. I’ve found MT useful in a limited way in cases where I know the subject matter well and can make a reasonable guess at correct term alternatives. As an example, I was reading some information in Dutch on training pointing dogs from a book recommended to me by a Dutch breeder. Just for fun and to be sure I was understanding the text more or less correctly, I dumped parts of it into Google Translate. I discovered to my surprise that alternative choices existed for various hunks of text, some correct, some not. But I could add the correct alternatives. Will this sort of thing replace a real professional in our lifetime? No way! But for fiddling around or some term lookups it might have a role to play. But one needs to know a lot in the first place to make any sense of the garbage.


  8. I think that MT is replacing human translators to some extent even in my field.

    For example a patent inventor told me recently that a patent examiner who is examining his new patent application is using an MT version of a Japanese patent that I translated for him. He was very happy about it because the examiner will be using the MT of the Japanese patent as an example of existing technology, which will make it easy for his attorney to attack the prior art among other things based on inaccurate machine translation.

    Surprise, surprise … US government is using machine translation because it’s free, even though the translation may not make much sense.

    At the same time, as more prior art is discovered thanks to MT, there is also more real translation work for people like me.


  9. Yes, I think Google Translate is useful to get an overall gist of a text and it can sometimes offer alternatives to words/phrases that you’ve considered using.

    But I always double check everything, as Google can throw up a lot of gibberish as Nikki says. Some of the translations are hilarious, and I especially like the ones on food labels/packaging. I think I might start compiling some of them, so when I’m feeling a bit down I can just read through them and have a laugh 🙂

    The problem is, Google translations look fine to clients who are none the wiser at times, and can´t access proper, well-written English. It’s all about sacrificing quality to save money. Serious, professional clients will acknowledge the pitfalls in using MT as their first and last port of call for translation work.


  10. Some people, many people, in fact, think that most human translators will be soon turned into mere editors of machine translations.

    An article celebrating the advantages of machine translations and explaining to translators how to “correctly edit” machine translations, because this is obviously in our future if not the present and only Luddites would resist, although all resistance is clearly as futile as trying to resist a superior alien civilization, was recently published in the ATA (American Translators Association) Chronicle.

    I thought that the article was so weird that I had to respond to it in this post on my blog

    Among other things, the article said:“It is never appropriate to submit unreviewed, unrevised machine translation output to a client as a finished translation.”

    To which my response was: “How very true. It is also never appropriate to kill your husband and children in their sleep, although that may sound like an easy solution too.”


  11. […] Who’s Afraid of Google Translate and Other Machine Translation Programs? ( […]


  12. For general texts, Google Translator is really good. I use Google Translator Toolkit (a CAT tool by Google that uses Google Translator) to translate some texts about cultural events and other similar types of texts. The output is not too bad, but it needs a lot of revising.

    Not sure if I’d use it for technical / legal texts. I can understand its value as a dictionary, but I’ve seen it choose the wrong meaning so many times I’d rather not risk it with unknown words. I feel better looking them up and making sure I’ve got the right meaning!

    For general texts it’s just a time saver. Since I understand the source text just fine, I can catch any errors. Working with a text about a topic I don’t know so much about… I wouldn’t want to risk the unknown.

    Thanks for the post and the blog, it makes a very good read!


  13. It works with technical text just fine too. For example when I see a complicated chemical compound, sometime I don’t know for sure how to say it in English right away but if I see a machine translation, I can always tell whether it is right or wrong and it is mostly right. There is almost always only one possible translation of a chemical compound, usually even if it a very long one.

    But longer sentence are often completely botched, more so when I translate from Japanese than from German or French or Russian.


  14. […] a successful translation by providing the following information to the translator Who’s Afraid of Google Translate and Other Machine Translation Programs? What Is The Main Difference Between Translators and Translation Agencies? Common Sense Advice about […]


  15. […] Who’s Afraid of Google Translate and Other Machine Translation Programs? ( […]


  16. All of us should be aware that the way GoogleTranslate works means that whenever we use it, we feed it huge corpora of parallel bilingual texts. They encourage you to supply a correct translation whenever you feel there is a mistake, thus getting their system improved for free. The thing that bothers me most about GT is the underlying principle that translation should be free, period. They won’t replace me, not in my lifetime, but GT is also a very sophisticated tool that uses translators who unwittingly help it with their free input.


    • Let’s not feed it then.

      To me, GT is just another dictionary.

      I like it, though, quite a bit. I found in it things that I was unsure about for years, like the best equivalent English translations for names of Japanese or German laws.

      But it is nothing more than a dictionary and never will be. No matter how much people feed it new stuff, it will never grow a brain.

      And you can’t translate without a brain.


  17. […] As I already wrote in another post about Google Translate in February of this year, I think that instead of replacing human translators, this is similar to what Google Translate will do for experienced translators, although people who don’t know much about translation, and even some translators who are now scared silly when Google Translate spits out a perfectly translated sentence, often postulate that it is only a matter of time before this patent translator is replaced by his favorite dictionary. Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]


  18. […] – Steve Vitek. February 19, 2o12, Who’s Afraid of Google Translate and Other Machine Translation Programs?: ”…; […]


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