Since the dawn of ages—the fall of the Babel Tower, for those who believe in it—people have needed to convey ideas in languages they haven’t mastered. This is known as “translation” and stands for the act of rendering text from one language to another.
For that, one would usually rely on someone else, who not only mastered both the “source” (original) language and “target” (translated) language but could also be trusted to translate the meaning of a message as it was originally intended.
This process can be costly and often impractical. Finding reliable translators can be challenging, costs soar, and above all, productivity may be low—but it all used to work for centuries when there weren’t alternative solutions available. The advent of computing tools in the 20th century changed everything.
From statistical models to deep learning in translation technology
Computers brought enormous improvements in translation with their ability to store already translated sentences and match them with new texts to translate. A number of computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools were then developed, which significantly improved productivity. Nonetheless, even with heavily involving a CAT tool, matching pairs had to be reviewed in context, and non-matching pairs still needed translation.
Machine translation (MT), which uses many techniques to automatically translate non-matching pairs without the need for a professional translator, has taken translation capabilities even further.
MT quickly became available to anyone thanks to the internet, and many technology vendors began to offer machine translation services for free. It seemed to solve all the problems posed previously—instant translation done for free.
However, there are a lot of questions swirling around the use of machine translation tools. How much can you trust the translation produced by a machine? To what extent does MT properly convey the original meaning of the content? In other words, is it accurate?
What is Google Translate?
Google, one of the leading MT providers today, has had a critical impact on making MT a viable productivity tool for both personal and business use. One of its MT services, Google Translate, is one of the most used free MT tools.
Google launched its public translation service in 2006, supporting only a small number of language pairs. Originally based on statistical machine translation (SMT) technology, it used translated material from the United Nations and European Parliament to build its database of language pairs.
Fast forward to today and you can see that Google Translate is used by around 500M users, translating around 100B words every day. In 2016, Google introduced neural machine translation (NMT), the latest MT technology, with over 100 languages supported in 2022.
What technology does Google Translate use in the backend?
Google Translate uses the frequency of word pairs between two languages as a database for its translation results. Initially, it relied on statistical MT technology, which uses a set of existing translations (corpora) to create statistical models for translating specific words within sentences.
While efficient, the shortcomings of SMT—above all the cost related to creating corpora and the low-quality results for specific language pairs—led Google to introduce NMT in 2016. It’s called “Google Neural Machine Translation” (GNMT).
Instead of running a set of predefined rules from the start, neural networks—inspired by the way human brains work—can handle complete sentences as examples of inputs (source text) and outputs (translated text) to predict the translation result. This has led to improved accuracy, customization, cost efficiency, and scalability.
Does Google Translate use English as an intermediary step?
While using SMT, Google Translate had to use an intermediary language, also known as a “pivot language,” between the source and target text. Apart from a few exceptions, Google used English for this purpose. Since switching to GNMT, Google Translate is able to translate directly from one language into another, without the use of an intermediary language.
How has Google Translate gotten better over time?
Improving the quality of its translation was a slow process for Google, and it took it about a decade to switch to a more efficient model. It didn’t remain inactive during those 10 years, though.
In the process of becoming aware of the flaws of its SMT approach, it put a great deal of effort into improving the quality of its translations: It dedicated a team of developers to its MT service and started acquiring innovative companies as well as supporting the development of a strong community.
Is Google Translate accurate, and can it be trusted?
As language and translation are both dynamic categories that intrinsically reflect processes—not static phenomena—accuracy should also be seen as a relative concept. Accuracy in translation will depend on the original intention of the author and the destination of the message. For example, expectations of accuracy in grammar, style, and register for an email will greatly vary from the expectations of accuracy for a novel.
A frequently heard opinion is that Google Translate’s free MT service is accurate enough for most users because they need to translate simple messages—and what matters most is that the audience is able to grasp the sense of it rather than the complete “native” message. It can then be considered accurate enough because expectations are low.
Here’s where Google Translate’s free MT tool mostly lacks accuracy:
- When used as a dictionary to translate single words: Google Translate struggles to produce an accurate result, i.e., as intended by the author, because of the many meanings a single word can have; this is true for English as well as for other widely spoken languages.
- Depending on the language pairs, better results are obtained between the most “common” languages.
- When translating familiar expressions that don’t have a direct equivalent in the target language.
- When non-verbal expressions are an important part of the message, e.g., when being ironic.
- When grammatical rules aren’t properly used in the source language or used differently in the target language, such as the subjunctive mood in English.
For business purposes, when a large amount of content needs translation across domains, Google offers its Cloud Translation connected system. Companies can either set it up themselves or rely on a translation management system (TMS) to fully manage it from day one. Cloud Translation offers customization features for domain and context-specific terms as well as the possibility to train custom translation models.
Google’s Cloud Translation offering makes an official statement that it doesn’t use any content submitted for translation for any purpose other than providing the translation service. Nevertheless, it’s unclear how the company uses the information submitted to the free version of Google Translate—or if the data influences business decisions in any way.
Does Google Translate have any major competitors?
While Google Translate may be the first name that will pop up when discussing machine translation, there are several competing machine translation tools on the market—each of them offering a specific approach to MT.
Here are some of Google Translate’s major competitors:
Amazon Translate is part of Amazon Web Service, a subsidiary of Amazon, providing on-demand cloud computing platforms and APIs for both individuals and businesses. It’s based on NMT technology as well.
Amazon Translate supports translation between 75 languages.
DeepL is a German-based online MT service that was launched in 2017. It uses a proprietary algorithm with NMT technology and can process DOCX, PPTX, and PDF files while retaining footnotes, formatting, and embedded images.
DeepL supports 26 languages, forming 650 target-to-source combinations.
Systran is a translation technology company founded in 1968 by a researcher at the California Institute of Technology. It’s one of the first companies to start developing MT software. Its original objective was to improve the translation of Russian into English.
Starting with rule-based MT technology, it developed hybrid RbMT/SMT technology and has since then switched to NMT.
With Systran Translate, you can translate in 50 languages.
Microsoft Translator is a multilingual MT cloud service provided by Microsoft. As part of Microsoft Cognitive Services, it’s integrated with multiple consumer, developer, and enterprise products.
Microsoft Translator supports over 100 languages.
Tencent Machine Translation is the main MT offering by Chinese technology giant Tencent. The solution combines both NMT and SMT models.
Tencent Machine Translation supports over 160 different language pairs.
How does Amazon Translate compare to Google Translate?
Both Amazon Translate and Google Translate are based on NMT technology. According to various comparisons, Google Translate often tends to be slightly more accurate. Nonetheless, the differences are negligible.
Since there are no professional translators involved in the MT process, both translation tools have their limitations—it all depends on the type of content you want to translate, your language pairs, as well as the specific requirements you have for the tool.
Will Google Translate ever be perfect?
Translation is not just about converting words from one language into another. If it were so, a dictionary would be the only necessary tool of the trade, and we all have seen the very poor (and sometimes very funny) results of working that way. This is because a message isn’t only made of words—it also contains context, intention, non-verbal aspects, etc.
That said, Google Translate has been rapidly advancing over the years, but it still can’t do much that human translators can:
- Ask questions
- Understand context
- Catch irony
- Translate creatively
- Make considered choices
- Do research
- Observe consistency
- Guarantee completeness
- Deliberately leave out or include information
- Add glosses/notes
No one knows if and when technology can reach the human level of semantic acuteness, but that’s exactly the goal for many. Quantum computing, for example, aims to increase the number of operations and data that can be processed, so one day it may be able to learn without human interaction and get a better understanding of the creation of language.
How to best use Google Translate?
Google Translate has grown into a strong productivity tool that can save you time and spare you the hassle of looking for a good translator. Nevertheless, if you decide to rely exclusively on Google Translate, you may run a considerable risk of your translation lacking important information, meaning, or grammar.
To avoid those pitfalls, it’s key to review and adjust your MT output. This process is known as machine translation post-editing (MTPE). Depending on the level of accuracy you want to achieve, you can apply light or full post-editing. Both approaches will give you the benefits of using MT output while ensuring that your message reaches the intended goal from the start.
Like all other free MT services, Google Translate’s free MT tool is quite handy when you want to translate relatively simple pieces of text quickly. However, for an accurate translation that properly conveys the original meaning, you’ll want to consider post-editing as the most effective way to use machine translation in the long run.