Tech & The Web

Why Are Translation Programs So Bad at Translating?

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One thing I look forward to with artificial intelligence is the improvement of translation programs to help more people communicate.

If you’re hoping translation programs will help you reliably translate a message into a different language, I have advice: Don’t get your hopes up.

I took two years of Spanish in high school. That was longer ago than I’d care to remember. My first-year Spanish teacher spoke the language so beautifully and confidently that she convinced us on the first day she was a native Spanish speaker. The second-year teacher was a new teacher who lacked that confidence. She made up for it, unfortunately, with a horrendous Southern accent that marred the language with a Southern drawl.

I tried to change teachers for my second year. Those efforts failed. Needless to say, the progress I made under my first year of Spanish disappeared by the end of the second year.

When I made it to college, my placement test scores exempted me from having to take foreign language classes, Hey, who was I to argue with a test result? Those same tests determined I didn’t have to take Calculus in college, either. The last thing I was going to do was argue with that!

Fast forward decades. We now live in a world of artificial intelligence and advanced spell-check software. AI promises to help us do nearly anything these days — or in the near future.

But AI needs a stronger dose of that I when it comes to translating from one language to another.

Translation programs fall short of the mark…by a long shot

There have been a handful of news stories that I have attempted to contribute to a sister site at my real job. Those stories go to a Spanish-language site. I select them when I feel there is a strong appeal to members of our Hispanic audience.

I want to be able to share more content for that audience. But I don’t have a bilingual producer at the moment. My limited exposure to Spanish is not strong enough to allow me to confidently translate my writing from English to Spanish by myself.

When I have tried to translate stories using AI, I’ve tried to be clever about it. I’ve tried to rely on more than one platform to double-check each other’s work.

So I might initially translate a story from English to Spanish using ChatGPT. Then I reverse-translate the story from Spanish to English using Google Translate.

I’ve caught plenty of errors.

There was the story about a student injured when a school bus hit him. The bus struck him and knocked him down. The translation worked out to his being run over by a school bus. Big difference.

There was a story expected to affect Hispanic immigrants after a regulation was lifted. A law or rule “being lifted” is an English idiom that means being canceled or allowed to expire. The translation changed it to “elevated,” as if it were really being raised, not canceled.

There are other differences between the two languages that are minor. For example, we capitalize the names of months in English, but you don’t in Spanish.

But the worst involved a reference to Black and Hispanic households being affected by a crime issue. It translated that into the color black, not afroamericanos. Worse, the color black, in Spanish, is negro, pronounced with a short E in the first syllable like “negative.” But in English, that’s a racial epithet.

Translation software desperately needs an upgrade

You would think artificial intelligence would be able to reason out a way to tell the difference. Apparently, they can’t.

The ironic part is that whenever I reach a site that is in another language, Google Chrome offers Google Translate as an option to read the content in English. Heaven knows what Google Translate is converting the story into. Heaven knows what it’s missing and getting wrong.

Are non-English speakers getting that kind of translation if they go to a site written in English and use that option to translate it into their language? Do they just know to accept such errors as problems with the translation and not the original text?

We can hope so.

But I know there are plenty of English speakers who seem to always look for something to complain about. I can’t imagine them suddenly assuming the best.

So I’m left with few options

As I’ve said, I don’t trust my limited Spanish skills to try to translate it myself. For obvious reasons, translation programs have proven to me they can’t handle that assignment reliably.

I can reach out to a sister station that has graciously offered to help when they can. But they’re in a bigger area with a huge workload of their own and often can’t help quickly.

I can reach out to a bilingual co-worker and ask him to help. But that’s not fair to him because it’s not part of his job description. (I appreciate the fact that he’s said more than once that he’s happy to help whenever I need him to do so. But still, that’s not a favor I want to abuse.)

The only other option is to not attempt to translate the copy at all. But in that case, I’m limiting the access to an audience that may, in certain cases, benefit from the information.

Hiring a producer who is fluent in Spanish might be an option some day. But it’s not an option at the moment, unfortunately. So my hands are somewhat tied.

In the meantime, I can hope that artificial intelligence gets smarter. But I’m not holding my breath on that one.

Have you ever tried to translate something you’ve written into a foreign language or tried to translate something in a foreign language to English? How well did it work for you?

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

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