Buyer Beware: Two Not-So-Laughable Google Translate Stories


Nov 4, 2015 / by Katharine Allen & Barry S. Olsen


From The Guardian...


Google Translate error sees Spanish town advertise clitoris festival

Article excerpt: It was meant to be a culinary festival celebrating grelo, the leafy green vegetable that is a staple in the Galician town of As Pontes in north-west Spain.

But for the past few months, the small town was marketing a very different kind of festival after it used Google Translate to put the Galician word grelo into Castilian Spanish, ending up with it inviting people to take part in a “clitoris festival”.

“It was quite a surprise,” Montserrat García, the town’s spokeswoman, told the Guardian. “At first, we didn’t believe what we were seeing.”

Local officials in As Pontes – population 11,000 – had written the announcement for the annual festival in Galician, one of the official languages of the northern Spanish region. They used Google Translate for the Spanish-language version of the text.


Link to full article HERE.


From The Virginia Beach Pilot...

Virginia Beach Sheriff's Office using iPads to help translate conversations

When a Chinese woman was brought to the Virginia Beach jail on prostitution charges this summer, she was so distraught that deputies thought she might need to be on suicide watch.


They tried to ask her questions, but she did not speak English.

"We were stumbling trying to figure out what to do," Capt. John Vargas said. "We were trying to get an interpreter on the phone, and it was taking a long time."

Sgt. William Fowler, who was watch commander that day, suggested they try Google Translate. The free app can be downloaded to translate text, speech, images and video into 90 languages.


"I had used it before when I was trying to figure out how to say something in Spanish to an inmate," Fowler said. "I said, 'If you're willing to give it a shot, you can use my phone.'"


Link to full article HERE.


InterpretAmerica's Take: Articles about Google Translate fails are nothing new, and the more comical and embarrassing the translation error, the longer the story’s life on social media. These stories find their way quickly to interpreting and translation forums where they are always good for a laugh and for providing a sense of reassurance that machine translation is far from capable of replacing professional human translators and interpreters.

Beyond the laughter, both articles point to a naiveté, lack of understanding of and even blind faith in machine translation on the part of its users. This naiveté often goes along with a deep disregard for the potential consequences when Google Translate gets it wrong.


In the case of the "clitoris festival," As Pontes' reputation either paid dearly for the mistake or received a whole lot of free PR, albeit not the kind they anticipated. Negative consequences to be sure, but hardly life-threatening.


The consequences for the naiveté of the Virginia Beach police force could be much graver. The police force, to be fair, is following a trend we are seeing with first responders resorting to Google Translate when time is of the absolute essence and the ability to ask simple, direct questions with an app could save lives. 


But a Jail, while still fulfilling a public service, is not providing emergency services. The questions referred to as "innocuous" in the article are far from that. Imagine what might happen if the person on the other end of the app does not truly understand the translation of "Do you want to harm yourself?," "Do you belong to a gang?," and "Do you understand your legal situation?" 


The fact that a police force in Virginia Beach, Virginia has purchased tablet computers for the express purpose of using Google Translate to communicate with detainees who do not speak English should give pause to those quick to ridicule the use of machine translation but not take more serious steps to educate the public as to its very real risks.


Machine translation engines are tools, and imperfect ones at that. Tools are built for specific jobs and for use under certain conditions. People expected to use tools should be trained on how to use them, to understand when it is appropriate to use them and to determine whether the work produced by the tool is acceptable.The use of a purely technological solution in these kinds of situations should ideally be a last resort. Unfortunately, this is something that average users of Google Translate fail to understand.


People and institutions all over the world are using machine translation and voice recognition tools to communicate. It is a new frontier. In Galicia, the apparent reason for using Google Translate was to save money. In the case of the jail, the need for direct communication stretched the limits of the interpreter services already in place and Google Translate picked up the slack. The former is a case of being penny wise and pound foolish. The latter, one that reminds us that in the land of the blind the one-eyed is king.

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