A new edition of this article for 2019 can be found here.

In recent years, machine translation has grown in sophistication and accessibility beyond what we imaged. Many people have suggested that human translators could be an endangered species.

There are currently a number of online translation services ranging in ability. Google Translate is one of the most used machine services because of its convenience. It currently translates over 100 billion words a day.

However, the ubiquity of people using the online tool has caused many to question the accuracy software. How accurate is Google Translate?

Keep reading to find out how good Google Translate is. Let’s take a look!

The New Developments in Machine Translation

Launched in 2006 as a statistical machine translation, Google Translate has improved dramatically since its creation.

Most significantly in 2017, Google moved away from Phrase-Based Machine Translation (PBMT) and was replaced by Neural Machine Translation (NMT).

Even though this started by offering translations from Chinese to English, it has since expanded to over one hundred languages.

The difference between the previous service and now, according to a Google spokesperson, Barak Turovsky, is “we translate whole sentences at a time, instead of pieces of a sentence“.

This is further supported by the Google Translate Community which includes people from around the world translating texts.

These new developments mean that Google Translate is now 60 percent more accurate than before.

Another Google spokesperson, Quoc Le, conducted an interview with MIT Technology Magazine. Le stated that the hope is “this research increases the ability for people around the world to communicate with others regardless of what languages they speak”.

Google’s Test of Accuracy

It’s clear that Google Translate is an intelligent and practical tool for many situations. This doesn’t mean it produces an accurate translation of the original content.

There is often nuance and subtlety in the written word that a machine can’t comprehend. As a result, the content can rarely be directly translated.

According to Google’s own tests, the accuracy of the translation depends on the languages translated.

The test required mother-tongue language speakers to rate Google Translate with a scale between 0 and 6. The average rating achieved an impressive 5.43 rating.

It makes sense that it’s easy for Google Translate to convert French to English since the two languages share so much.

But what about languages that require a greater jump from one to the other? The Chinese to English translation received a rating of only 4.3 out of 6. Other languages have even lower scores because of their complexity and differences.

Double Meanings and Ambiguity

Language is very complicated and ambiguous. Many words have several meanings that change according to the context of the sentence.

While Google Translate attempts to account for this, it often makes mistakes when it comes to translating the meaning.

For example, Douglas Hofstadter in the Atlantic pointed out the way Google Translate often mistranslates German words into English.

The German word “Wissenschaftler” could mean either “scholar” or “scientist”. Both of these words have quite different meanings in the English language.

This is further complicated when you consider gendered German nouns. In this case, “Wissenschaftler” is masculine. If you have a female scientist or scholar it’s “Wissenschaftlerin”, or “Wissenschaftlerinnen.”

If you want to emphasize “female scholars” in German, this would translate as scientists in the German Google Translate version. This illustrates the problems that face Google Translate’s attempts at accuracy.

What Do You Need in a Translation?

Before we can answer how good Google Translate is, it’s important to consider why you want a translation in the first place.

Are you looking for the basic meaning of a text or some top-quality content? Ask yourself these 3 questions:

1. What does the Audience Expect?

How accurate do audiences expect Google translate to be?

Are they looking for flawless, tailor-made content? Do they want to understand the deeper meaning of the text?

Even though Google might be able to provide translations that give the audience the gist of the original text, if you’re looking for top-quality translated content, you might have to look elsewhere.

2. What’s the Topic?

The accuracy of the machine translation depends on the topic that’s being translated.

If the content translated includes a lot of technical or specialized things, it’s unlikely that Google Translate will work.

3. Quality of the Text?

How important is the quality of the text? Do you want the text written in a particular style or format and have the translation convey that meaning?

Google can translate content written in a consistent manner with the general use of words and phrases.

If the text includes jargon, slang and colloquial words this can be almost impossible for Google Translate to identify. If the tool is not trained to understand these linguistic irregularities, the translation will come out literal and (most likely) incorrect.

How Accurate is Google Translate?

Even though Google Translate is an excellent translation app, there are always going to be potential inaccuracies in the end product.

Language is a complicated and subtle thing. We can’t expect machines to understand every aspect of the way human beings communicate with each other.

That’s why the answer to how accurate is Google Translate is that it still has a ways to go before it can consistently translate without mistakes.

That’s why if you want 100 percent professional accuracy for your translation, it’s important to hire a professional human translator. To find out more about our translation services, get in touch with us today.

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