Today the BBC has reported an interesting problem with Google Translate, apparently the Ukrainian to Russian translation of “Russian Federation”, was being given as “Mordor” – the fictional evil kingdom in the Lord of the Rings. Google have been quick to confirm that the error has been corrected, and commented that their programme is machine based, and therefore not the work of human translators…hmmm, we’re inclined to agree there.

At first read this was quite funny, yes we had a good chuckle, but the worrying reality is that we hear of many businesses and other types of organisations trying to use Google translate in a professional context. If you were trying to do business with Russia, you probably wouldn’t want this kind of mistranslation on your sales brochure or website, yet organisations persist in trying to use Google translate as an alternative to professional human translation services.

A couple of years ago the New York Times ran a story about pharmacists using Google translate to supply medicine labels in any of 28 ethnic languages spoken in the City of New York. The problem is if Google Translate will do this with a simple term like “Russian Federation”, what will it do with a description of your medicine or dosage instructions? Suffice to say as a linguist myself, I would not accept a Google translated medicine label, and nor should you!

One of our local councils, Rushcliffe Borough Council, where I live, has a “translate” function on their website – thoughtfully provided for speakers of other languages. OK, they probably aren’t going to commission better languages to produce hundreds of pages of content in the offered 57 languages – I would probably have something to say about this as a council tax payer – but the result is very poor, and gives a bad image of the organisation. I just tested it, looking at the Spanish translation of the site. The health warning before you use the “translate” function should ring alarm bells “You can translate our site into 57 different languages using Google Translate. Rushcliffe Borough Council is not responsible for the content or accuracy of external websites.” (An odd statement actually, since the translated text appears on their website, with full Rushcliffe branding).

So what’s the result like? Pretty poor, for example has the heading from the English version AZ (as in A-Z), translated  helpfully into Spanish as “Arizona”.

One of our competitors, Elan Languages, recently won an advertising award for their taste test, pitting human translation against Google translation, suffice to say, I know which recipe I would prefer.