Why online translators are bad news

It’s oh-so tempting when you’re stuck on a piece of Japanese homework, trying to trawl your way through a difficult article on a website or want to quickly reply to a message that your Japanese friend sent you—”Google translate will do the trick” you think to yourself. It won’t.


photo by Kevin O’Mara

The Japanese language is full of inferences, idiomatic expressions and nuance. Even human beings have issues understanding exactly what is said in Japanese and how best to translate it—so what chance does a computer have?

Computer translations are getting better and better. Online translation between the Romance European languages is often very good (that is to say understandable, but not always accurate). This is because structurally, syntactically and linguistically there are many parallels, and any idiom or nuance is often similar. What helps too is that across these languages (French to Italian, for example) there are similar sentence structure patterns that emerge.

Trying out Google Translate

Let’s take an English sentence to see how a human would deal with it, and how an online translator deals with it.

I fancy going shopping with my family today.

This is a pretty simple sentence, and something that is probably quite often said. I put it into Google translate and got:

Google Japanese translation

Let’s look at some issues with this sentence.

1. It doesn’t know what not to translate

In Japanese, unless absolutely necessary, personal pronouns (I, you, we, etc) are rarely used. It’s obvious that it’s me who wants to go shopping, so the Japanese just don’t say ‘I’ unless the context is implicate of the contrary.

2. It’s translated every word

Another feature of Japanese is that so much more is implied than English. In this sentence, we see the word 「一緒に」 is present, which whilst not strictly wrong, it’s obvious that I’m going ‘along with’ my family if I just said ‘with’ my family. It’s meaning is is more like ‘all together’ or ‘along with’ than simply ‘with,’ which would be translated as と.

3. It’s taken the most literal meaning

‘I fancy’ is a phrase in English which can mean a number of things. “I fancy a hot chocolate” is very different to saying “I fancy my girlfriend.” What google has given us is the word 空想, which is literally a ‘fantasy’ or ‘daydream.’ Whilst this word is great if you’re speaking about dragons or pie-in-the-sky ideas that people have, it’s less useful if you’re just saying that you’d quite like to do something.

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We also see this with お店, which is, strictly speaking the word for a shop, but when speaking about going shopping, it’s common place to use the verbal phrase 「買物をする」. It’s like in English saying, “I’m traveling to a merchant.” Not strictly incorrect, but not correct either.

4. It doesn’t know what is the best sentence structure to use.

In Japanese, not only are there firm conventions like the verb coming at the end of a sentence, there are more general rules about where the subject of the sentence goes and where the time reference is placed. In English, we could say, “at seven o’clock I brush my teeth.” Far more natural is “I brush my teeth at seven o’clock.” It’s the same kind of thing in Japanese. Here, it’s very unusual to see the word for today 「今日」 in the middle of the sentence.

5. The grammatical structure is fundamentally different.

When saying that you ‘fancy’ doing something, you’re really saying that you’d ‘like’ to do something. In Japanese, there is the 〜たい form (e.g. 「パリに行きたい」, “I want to go to Paris”) or the word 欲しい used after the 〜て form. Knowing which to use is a matter of practice and judgement. The verb ending here is just a regular present tense dictionary form. Not at all what I wanted it to be!

Can Microsoft do any better?

For comparison, I thought I’d try out Bing translate, and this is what I got:

Bing Japanese translation

Here we’ve at least got the word 買い物, which is a promising start. However, we also have the two particles と and を in a row, which is simply wrong! Never in Japanese could you have particles paired like that save for certain exceptions such as emphatic particles (e.g., よね), before は (e.g., には、では、とは、のは)and occasionally before が (e.g., のが). Again, we see this word 空想 crop up, where no human translator would ever considering using it. The whole sentence is generally a mess.

Online translation can be fun

To prove just how loony automated translations can be, the website Translation Party was created by two guys, Will Carlough and Richard Boenigk, which seeks to ‘find equilibrium’ between translations, and backward translations of an English phrase into Japanese. This is to say that if you translate, and back translate something often enough, the phrase will become so devoid of meaning that when translated back and forth, the same result will appear each time. I tried this phrase:

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Translation Party Japanese equilibrium

It’s quite evident that if the English makes no sense, the Japanese is equally unlikely to make any sense. Try it out for yourself with the sentence we looked at above: http://www.translationparty.com/#9392929, and see how “I fancy going shopping with my family today” becomes “I was going to spend time with his family for shopping and weather.”

If you have any particularly funny Translation Party equilibriums, I’d love for you to post them in the comments below!

So what can I do about getting a good translation?

Firstly, getting a good translation is a very difficult thing to do, and is a skill that has a price attached to it. Resist just emailing people who you think may be able to translate for you with the expectation that they should be able to do it for free. Like anything that you’ve worked hard for, you should be properly remunerated. That said, it’s always worth trying out the NihongoUp forum and posting something (accompanied by a nice message, of course) to see if anybody could help you out with a few lines.

If you’d like to rely on the translation a little more, your next port of call (if you can’t speak Japanese well enough yet) is to go to a translation agency. There are many about, but the one for which I translate in my spare time is MyGengo, a Japanese start-up that is a joy to use and very reasonably priced. If you ever have a few sentences that you need a quick translation for, I’d encourage you to give it a try…

I’m already awesome at translation

If you think that you can do a better job of translating, “I fancy going shopping with my family today.” into Japanese, head to the NihongoUp forum and post your translation. The best translations will win a NihongoUp sticker and mini hiragana and katakana chart pack!

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+Ollie Capehorn is an entrepreneur who has worked on LinguaLift and other related projects since 2010 after representing the UK in a speech contest in Japan. He is a keen linguist, and a student of law at Oxford University.

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