Pros and Cons of Google Translate

Do you know what the pros and cons of Google Translate are? Spoiler alert: the cons are more serious.

Note: This post was updated on November 23, 2016.

Google Translate is very appealing. And I say this as the owner of a translation company.

There are implications for language professionals, of course. But the tool’s pluses and minuses also affect everyday users, from language learners to professionals in other industries.

Read on for the pros and cons of Google Translate as well as RedLine’s verdict on the tool. (And check out our companion post on why the Google Translate widget is killing your brand.)

Google Translate supports more than 100 languages. Only 7,000 to go!

Google’s translation tool is a big step forward in the field of translation technology. Google Translate is free, fast, and more accurate than other online translation tools.

The bad news? It can’t rival skilled human translators when it comes to conveying all meaning accurately and naturally.

When it encounters a word or phrase for which it lacks enough good translations, it may not give you the best translation. In fact, Google Translate may even output a translation that is unnatural or simply wrong.

pros and cons of google translate cartoonThe Pros

  • Google Translate is fast. Incredibly fast. So fast that no human translator—or team of translators—can hope to compete with it in sheer output. A professional might translate 3,000 words in an 8-hour day. But Google Translate can do that in the blink of an eye. (In fact, GT now translates as you type.)
  • Google Translate is free. Google’s translation tool costs the user nothing.
  • Google Translate uses a statistical learning approach, not a rules-based approach. The result is that many (but not all) translations are culled from human translations already online.

The Cons

  • Google Translate makes mistakes. Malaysia’s Sun Daily newspaper recently reported on an interview that local media conducted with Google research scientist Ashish Venugopal. Venugopal explained why translation errors occur in Google Translate. He also discussed where the technology is headed.
  • Google Translate’s quality varies from language pair to language pair. The tool may produce a usable gist for an English-to-Spanish translation. Billions of words for each language can easily be found in cyberspace. Not so for Danish and Romanian. Or Turkish and Thai. Users who need a translation for rarer language pairs may find Google’s translation tool useless.
  • Google Translate doesn’t offer the user any form of quality control. The search giant’s massive market dominance leads user to implicitly trust its offerings. But a user has no way of knowing whether Google’s German translation of an English text is any good. Simply getting a result—any result—in no way guarantees that the result is good.
  • Google Translate is not private. In fact, when you upload your text to Google Translate, you’re effectively saying, “Here you go, Google! Take this employment contract! And our company’s marketing strategy! And this confidential policy paper!” Read Google’s terms for yourself.

In short, when you use Google Translate, you are handing over your text to a faceless tech giant with no guarantee of getting an accurate result in return. (This is the true cost of “free.”)

How Does Google Translate Work?

Google’s translation tool makes use of the search giant’s stupefying web-crawling capacity to enable its translations. This is different from other rules-based translation tools. Rules-based systems require a lot of work from linguists, not to mention massive digital dictionaries. The result is an attempt at something close to word-for-word translation. Professional human translators know this just doesn’t work.

So what does Google do? Rather than use a rules-based system, Google Translate uses a statistical learning approach. It feeds billions of words (both monolingual text and “aligned” text that humans have translated) into its program. Then it lets the tool find popular matches.

The result? The tool can correctly translate the French phrase comme un éléphant dans un magasin de porcelaine into English: “like a bull in a china shop.” French speakers use éléphant and English speakers use “bull.” The animals are different but the idea is the same.

By contrast, a rules-based approach to the same phrase might produce something like “an elephant in a porcelain store.” A native English speaker would recognize this word-for-word result as wrong.

pros and cons of google translate

Google Translate can translate some figures of speech, but quality varies widely depending on the language. Oh, and there’s that small matter of privacy…

Pros and Cons of Google Translate: The Verdict

So is Google Translate a useful tool? Yes and no. It depends on your needs. A Fortune 500 company would risk its reputation, sales, and breach of any NDA it has signed if it relied only on machine translation. It’s just not accurate enough to be used in commercial translation, even for short and relatively simple translations of birth certificates.

But a high school student doing a research project may want to use it. It’s good at producing “gist” translations.

Keep the pros and cons of Google Translate in mind when using the tool. The bottom line? It’s good for general, “low-stakes” translation. It’s not for professional use.

Special thanks go to Dan Dingman of Fantasy Horizons for creating the cartoon art.