Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Are Translation Apps at All Useful?

Machine translation has certainly come a long way since its infancy just a few years ago. So is it good enough to provide the basic idea of a message you have received in a language you don't speak? Not quite, it seems.

Several of my family members collaborated on my combined birthday/Christmas gift: an iPad. Having tried for some time now to come up with a justification for buying a tablet computer -- and failed to do so -- I was overjoyed. Browsing through its app store, I came upon a free translation utility, "Free Translator". Once I downloaded it, a small note in the corner said "powered by Google translate". While Google generally can't provide a polished translation, it is often good enough to get the gist of a text.

So I decided to test it with the German sentence from one of my clients giving me the go-ahead for a project and confirming its due date. The German sentence read "Der Auftrag ist erteilt, Lieferung Mitte nächster Woche OK!" The app returned "The order is issued, starting mid-next week OK!"

This does sound like an understandable English sentence, doesn't it? Well, yes, except for the fact that "Lieferung" means "delivery" (i.e., due date), not "starting". Were I to rely on the translated version of this order confirmation, I wouldn't be able to deliver on time (the project involves 6 PDFs of 2 pages each).

The purpose of small, free apps such as this one is precisely for a reader to understand the basic idea in an e-mail that was written in a language he or she doesn't speak. Good English grammar, let alone polished style, is not necessary in that context, but accuracy is. Even if terms are only "sort of" right (e.g., "udder" instead of "breast" in a sentence about a woman's cancer diagnosis), humans can often discern the actual meaning. However, if the translation is simply wrong (as in "starting" instead of "delivering"), there is no way for a person to know that he or she has have been given the wrong information.

If one cannot rely on such apps to provide even the basics of a message, there seems little point in using them. To answer the question in the title, then: apparently not.

Caveat: I did use Google Translate last year to render "Merry Christmas" into Tagalog for my son-in-law's card. He tells me that while the phrase wasn't idiomatic, it was understandable. So sometimes it does work. But how do I know when it does?/p>


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