Is Google Translate transforming languages

... or simply producing embarrassing translations?

free translation

Since I swapped a comfortable in-house translator’s seat for the altogether more wobbly one of a freelance translator around 10 years ago, I have had to be a lot more involved in the sales and marketing function of my own business. This hasn’t been an uninteresting path and, amongst other new challenges, implied spending a lot more time researching potential clients’ branding and marketing. It was during one of these browsing journeys that I met a new, unfair competitor and growing stakeholder of our industry: Google translate.

Of course I was already aware of its existence and its, well… prowess! I’d always conveniently dismissed it as irrelevant and unimportant. “Decent companies”, I foolishly thought, “see right through it. They know the importance of a proper translation because they respect their foreign audience”.

My recent discovery doesn’t therefore reside in the outrageous results produced by automatic translation systems, or even in being introduced to GT’s fellow fraud: the “French speaker in the office” (capable of equally unintelligible content). No, the terrifying new fact for me was the realisation that, not only do some businesses consider automated translations a real alternative to professional ones, but worse, readers are willing to accept such abysmal wording as a perfectly acceptable language and may even learn from it and incorporate the new syntax in their day-to-day speech.

The first time I heard a French fellow expat refer to the fact that “il devait s’asseoir avec son patron” (literally, “sit down with his boss”), I thought it thoroughly unfrench, yet funny. The second time, as a French waiter at a local pub found himself “occupé à mopper le floor” (“busy mopping the floor”, with the English words declined according to French grammar!), I kind of half-smiled.

Coming across “la côte Poole belle”, however, threw in a different kind of spanner in the works. It seems Pooletourism.com think it sufficient to simply direct any foreign traffic to Google Translate, who will promptly and automatically regurgitate the entire website in Franco-gibberish. Amongst the resulting rubbish (excuse the pun), French locals and tourists alike have grown accustomed to modifying GT’s grammatically incorrect translation of “the beautiful Poole coast”, jokingly turning it into “la cote poubelle” (the dustbin coast). I have tried contacting Poole tourism about it but, in line with the rest of the service, a beautifully automated answer phone has been informing me that “there is nobody available to take your call”…

Part of the problem lies in the confirmation that Google itself gives of the existence of a term it has created, by incorporating it to other websites translated in the same way. In this the machine gets a great deal of assistance from a vast crowd of wannabe translators and non-native speakers, whose incapacity to use the phrase “I don’t know” is supported by an array of terminology forums and misfocused reward systems.

I’m sure I speak for most translators when I report my puzzlement after searching for a term in my target language, only to find that the mistranslation is taking over the net to the point where it is almost impossible to identify the correct, most widely used word (as a tip, if your target language search engine lists sites such as linguee.com in its monolingual search results, it’s probably because it can’t find enough sites using the word in question in the target language).

How many times can you question “press folder” (literal translation of “press pack”), before you accept that you, along with most marketing professionals and as many dictionaries, are just suffering from acute memory loss and (reluctantly) start using the term accepted by the internet community in your communications with fellow PR specialists? And will they follow suite and start using it in turn? And at that stage, does it remain a mistranslation or does it become acceptable?

Of course we will all agree that a language must evolve and adapt, and some might even argue that if an expression is commonly accepted and used, then it becomes correct (not unlike the world famous Tarte Tatin became a delicacy after it was a cooking error). But upon further investigation, it seems it takes a particularly good error to make it in the dictionary. In the meantime, only human brains are capable of realising that the New Forest should not be translated, and “la nouvelle forêt” remains a mistranslation and a joke.

I find this conclusion reassuring as it should mean that machines won’t take over for some time yet and that Google is, contrarily to some online announcements, definitely not God. At the risk of enriching our vocabulary with a new word, our translation community, as well as the multi-lingual business world, should consider the following question: we were always warned against the dreaded “faux-amis”, should we now beware the somewhat sneakier “googlisms”?

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