When is it OK to use Google Translate?


Google Translate, and other machine translation (MT) programs, have come along in leaps and bounds in the last few years. Not only can we download apps where we can just type in words and instantly get a result in another language, but you can take photos of signs and get a translation straight away, and even instantly translate voice and video calls with the likes of Skype Translator. With the magic of deep learning technology, computers are able to “learn” more and in theory, improve the quality of their output the more it is used.

Are translators worried that their jobs are going to be taken over by robots? Mostly, no. A recent poll on the translation community website ProZ suggested that over half of translators were not concerned at all, and only a quarter were ‘somewhat concerned’.

Most, if not all, translators believe that human translation will always be needed in some situations – the hard part is reminding businesses and individuals of this fact, when there are so many translation programs available to choose from online – often for free. So, below are a few situations where I believe it’s okay to reach for that Google Translate app (for a short amount of time!) – and a couple of situations where you really should pick up the phone instead and call in the professionals.

When you’re on holiday

This is probably one of the most common uses of machine translation. You waltz into a French tabac and blurt out your perfectly practised sentence: “un timbre, s’il vous plaît.” (Nailed it!)

Unfortunately, instead of handing over your stamp as you hoped, Madame asks you another question in return. Dammit, you think. I only know that one sentence!

Navigating foreign languages and bilingual dictionaries is all part of the fun of being on holiday. Just look out for homophones (words that sound the same but mean different things) and homonyms (words that look the same but have multiple meanings), which often trip up many translation apps. Also, for spoken apps, unless you’re speaking super clearly, the translation can still be a bit garbled.

Still, translation apps can be good for emergency situations – but if it becomes a bit too much of an emergency – say, you’ve wound up in hospital or had a run-in with the police – you may want to find an interpreter who can fully understand both sides of the conversation.

To get the ‘gist’ of a text

Sometimes, we just need to speed-read a text to get a general idea of what it is saying. Perhaps to find out if the text has the information we need in it. Machine translation could work for this, because we may only glance through the text once and never need it again.

The issue comes when we start using that information for documents that other people are going to see. Brochures that you want to distribute to customers, important documents that you need to pass on to stakeholders. If your text has serious purposes, and you don’t want your credibility to be affected by a machine translation that you’re not sure is correct or not, you should definitely get a professional translator to guide you.

The best part is, translators will help you adapt your text in ways you may not have considered, such as localising units of measurement, or explaining why certain sentences or phrases may not have the same effect once they’re translated, and they can restructure or rewrite your message to fit the new language.

To look up single words

Translation apps are often handy for menus, when you know what one word is but not the other. Google Translate has a fun thing where you can take pictures and it instantly translates the words, and it…sometimes works…but as you can see, even menus are best translated by real-life translators.


I’ll have a roguish goat sandwich please, with the sting on the side?

Also, beware of synonyms when translating, as well as homophones and homonyms. For example, Google Translate sometimes translates the French word assistant as wizard – which is technically correct, but only in a computer sense. When you’ve got thousands of people entering their own translations for words that fit their specific text, the program has no idea which one is correct for the context.


Yeah, that can’t be right.

‘Context’ is one of the big things translators go on about, as great translations are created only by fully understanding the context and the culture in which the text is set. And, although machine translation technology will continue to improve, it still has a long way to go to before it can fully grasp the intricacies of human communication.

5 thoughts on “When is it OK to use Google Translate?

  1. Pingback: Weekly translation favorites (Dec 23-29)

  2. I was on a train in Italy, A guy who only spoke Chinese (well, none of my languages–ES EN or IT, or even languages I sort of understand like Portuguese or French, anyway). He was taking a train trip that was a bit complicated and had approached me on the platform for help. With gestures and intonation he asked if the train I was about to get on was going to X destination? I said “Siiiiiiii” and motioned him to come with me. He showed me his ticket and it had about 4 destinations on it so he was going to have to switch trains like 3 times. I was not getting off where he was getting off next, but I wanted to make sure he got off at the right place because there are two stops with very similar names one after the other, and one was his. I went over to him to tell him (with pantomime) to get off in 4 more stops. he whipped out the iPhone and spoke in Chinese to the phone, which instantly translated to written Italian, and I could help him. I talked back to his phone in English and switched it from Italian back to Chinese.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, that’s cool! I’m so glad that I speak French and Spanish so I can at least have a guess at Italian, Portuguese etc, but when I went to some parts of Hong Kong I was completely lost (which is all part of the fun of travelling, of course!) In one restaurant this random man sitting at another table had to point out which things in the menu were vegetarian (for me) because the waitress didn’t speak any English. I was a bit embarrassed at the time, but it’s a fun anecdote now. 😀


  3. Pingback: Why this “good enough” translation is not fit for purpose | Bellingua Translations

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