San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

On the fallibility of computer translations

Many years ago, when computer translation programs were first being developed, the Biblical phrase “The flesh is weak, but the spirit is willing” was fed into a program to be translated into Russian. What came out in Russian was “The meat is rotten, but the wine is good.”

Kate Galante

Kate Galante

Such programs have improved considerably since then, but beware: they are anything but perfect. 

Various online translation programs are available, but the most popular one seems to be Google Translate. It is simple to use. You indicate the languages you wish to translate to and from and then type in the word, phrase or sentence(s) you wish to translate. If you are entering more than a word, however, you may run into trouble. In fact, according to the Google Official Blog: “Language as such cannot be quantified as a set of absolute mathematical values. As a result a simple 1:1 conversion is impossible.“

This is true for several reasons. As you know, many words have more than one meaning. If, for example, we enter the Spanish word “esperar” for translation, we get 10 different options. If we enter the English word “turn” for translation, we get 12 different options. There are, in addition, words that cannot be directly translated. In my last column, I used the examples “corny” and “clutter.” 

Moreover, adjectives and nouns in English are often expressed as a verb construction in Spanish, and this trips up the program or causes it to translate the phrase into something awkward or seldom used. Here are some examples:

“She is such a pest!” translates to “¡Ella es una plaga!” This is understandable in Spanish, but a Spanish-speaker would probably say, “molesta mucho” or “Jode mucho.” 

“He is a woman-hater,” translates accurately to, “Él es un misógino.” “She is a man-hater,” translates inaccurately to, “Ella es un hombre que odia,” (She is a man who hates). In both cases, however, a Spanish-speaker would be more likely to say “Él odia a las mujeres” and “Ella odia a los hombres.”

“I have a sore finger,” translates, not incorrectly, to “Tengo un dedo dolido.” But a Spanish-speaker would probably say “Me duele el dedo.”

If you want to translate longer documents, it is advisable to use Google Translator Toolkit, which allows you to edit with help the Google Translate version by providing shared translations, glossaries and translation memories.  You can upload and translate Microsoft Word and Open Office documents, , RTF, HTML, text and Wikipedia articles. It all happens on a split screen, so it is easy to keep track of how the translation is going. 

The Google Official Blog explains in detail how it works: “First, users upload a file from their desktop or enter a URL of a web page or Wikipedia article that they want to translate. Google Translator Toolkit automatically ‘pretranslates’ the document. … Next, it searches all available translation databases for previous human translations of each segment. If any previous human translations of the segment exist, Google Translator Toolkit picks the highest-ranked search result and pretranslates the segment with that translation.”

Users can then work on reviewing and improving the automatic translation. They can click on the sentence and fix a translation, or they can use Google’s translation tools to help them translate by clicking the “show toolkit” button.

By using the toolkit, they can view translations previously entered by other users in the “translation search results” tab, or use the “dictionary” tab to search for the right translations for hard-to-find words. In addition, translators can use features like custom, multi-lingual glossaries … They can also share their translations with their friends by clicking the “share” button and inviting them to help edit or view their translation.” It’s easy to access. Just go to Google Translate and click on Google Translator Toolkit under the translation screens. 

When all is said and done, Google Translate does an impressive job. It will even translate a certain amount of slang. Where it understandably makes a lot of mistakes is with poetical text.

Here is an example of a problematical translation from page 1 of “Cien años de soledad” (“One Hundred Years of Solitude”): by Gabriel García Márquez: “Macondo era entonces una aldea de veinte casas de barro y cañabrava construidas a la orilla de un río de aguas diáfanas que se precipitaban por un lecho de piedras pulidas, blancas y enormes como huevos prehistóricos.”  “Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank cañabrava a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.”

And here’s a faulty translation from English to Spanish: “Its coils and meshes held them fast while its gathering momentum rolled them irrevocably down, as if on the breast of some great river, towards the fulfilling ocean.” (p. 614, “The Avignon Quintet” by Lawrence Durrell.) “Sus bobinas y mallas retuvieron rápido, mientras que su impulso reunión rodaron irrevocablemente hacia abajo, como si en el pecho de algún gran río hacia el océano satisfactoria.”

Finally, here is the muddle it made of one of my favorite lines of poetry by Yeats: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?” (Among School Children)

“La junta del cuerpo se balanceaba a la música, la mirada O brillo, ¿Cómo podemos saber la bailarina de la danza?”

It’s nice to know that some things are still best left in human hands.

Kate Galante can be reached at

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