Words Nerd has just happened upon a piece by Michael Skapinker in the FT reviewing Google Translate’s version for signs and whether it is good enough for business use? (paywall)
We might suggest it’s not even good enough for menus. Back in March, in Lisbon, we read Goose Barnacles on a seafood menu. The Portuguese is percebas, but this had been translated into English by a human being as goose barnacles’’. Google gives us ‘barnacles’, which didn’t get us much further. Can there really be such thing as a goose barnacle? Must be a mistake we told ourselves. They’re probably clams. Anyway, how often do you get to order something you’ve never heard of? Turns out they’re not clams. They are barnacles, which look like little goose feet. Before migration was understood, they thought this is where the geese went in winter. Taste good though; salty and a bit meaty.
Could Google’s new signs translation services have helped with this? Unlikely. Sometimes you need more information. You need to know more about the world, or what the writer was thinking. More information than just a direct translation might have helped. But then, had we seen a picture or really understood what they were, we might never have ordered them. When they arrived we weren’t exactly sure how to eat them.
Like all translations, the Google Translate version is useful, but we can see it has limits. It serves a purpose in business; it’s often useful for translating nouns or technical terms. The PR Savvy team uses it with international clients to get the gist of press releases written in French or German. Although we often have to go back to the original writer and ask exactly what they meant by something.
The Words Nerd’s verdict is that Google Translate is useful, but not good enough on its own. The understanding of the world that real people (and experiences) bring to translation is still vital. That and being brave about what you eat.
There’s more on this in the Financial Times, but it’s behind a paywall.