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Opinion: Google Translate app

The problem with travelling overseas is not speaking the language. Google, and a number of other companies, are trying to make the world a smaller place by creating translation apps.

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The Google Translate app (Android, iOS) has been around for a long time. Using the same tech as their website of the same name, the app was pretty good for putting in text and translating it into garbled but understandable English, and vice versa. You could even write in logographic letter types, such as the Japanese kanji writing system.

The latest update has added a very cool new feature. You can now point your phone’s camera at text and it will translate it on the fly. Meaning that you can, hypothetically, look through your phone at signs, menus and other basic text in a language you don’t speak and see it written in English instead. Here is a Portuguese menu that I translated, alongside the original:

As you can see, it’s not perfect. Far from it.

I also tried the reverse and translated some text into Italian. I asked Giovanni Tiso, an Italian translator in Wellington, to give his verdict on how close the translation was and his reply was blunt: “Not close at all. Zero per cent close.”

I asked him what was wrong about the translation and he said:
“Machine translation doesn't exist. Computers can't understand human language. So, what Google Translate does is make a statistical analysis of a text based on a vast corpus of translations done by humans in the past – some of which are publicly available, like the EU translation database, some of which it may have acquired – then pick the most likely, in statistical terms. This works quite well with long sentences but almost never with fragments because fragments require an actual understanding of meaning.”

And sentence fragments are what most tourists need translating. Single word signs (such as the all-important “toilet”) will work, but anything that needs further explanation will end up looking a little messed up. The app has trouble figuring out where sentences end without clear punctuation. So if a sentence goes over a line the app translates it like two separate sentences without context. For example:

“Summertime in
Paris is beautiful.”

Would be translated as two sentences: “Summertime in.” and “Paris is Beautiful.”

An odd thing was the app translated some things that weren’t actually words. For example, the patterns of windows in a building were perceived as words and the app did its best to translate them.

This kind of technology has been seen before, but with Google behind it and constantly learning from all of its users then it’s safe to say that we are about to step into a new age of translation services.

About the author:

Hadyn Green is a geek. He loves shiny new tech and the chance to try to break it. Because it's the kind of thing people ask, here is the tech Hadyn currently uses. Phone: Sony Z2 Tablet: iPad mini retina. Music player: Spotify. Headphones: Sony MDR-G55 (for walking because I hate earbuds) and Beats Studio noise-cancelling (for sitting at my desk and tuning out the world). E-Reader: Kindle Touch. Gaming: PS4, PS3, Xbox One and Xbox 360. Internet Service Provider: Snap.

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