This article by Foreign Policy was brought to my attention recently and while it is humorous to think of American Senators sending nonsensical correspondence to foreign leaders, the article is also a perfect example as to why Google Translate cannot be relied on for accurate translations of large text. In case you don’t want to read the linked article, Senator Tom Cotton, along with 46 other Republicans sent a letter to the Javad Zarif (Iran’s Foreign Minister) and Hassan Rouhani (Iran’s President) expressing their disdain for America reaching a nuclear deal with Iran. The problem is, the Senator apparently used Google Translate to translate the content of the letter and wound up tweeting a bungled mess that makes little to no sense at all. Here is my favorite back-translated line from the Senator’s Persian failure:
We hope while the nuclear negotiations are progressing this letter enriching your knowledge of our constitutional system and mutual clear understanding elevating.
The above sentence clearly makes no sense in any language and it is a demonstration of why actual fluency is far better than access to a machine-automated translation. Computer automated translation tools such as Google Translate do not actually translate materials, they really just draw on already-established patterns of linguistic expression. When you type something into Google Translate, the computer begins working and assumes that the phrase you just typed is likely something that has been said before. Google then uses computing power to scour the internet looking for the expression in some text that exists alongside its paired translation. So, Google scans a corpus of documents and translations and then uses statistical methods to pick out the version that is probably most acceptable.
The reason this doesn’t work for larger texts such as a letter, or even full sentences is because language is infinite. There is not a finite combination of words and phrases that can be said in a language, in fact, most phrases can be considered novel to the listener and the speaker, that is, although both interlocutors may be fluent in the language being spoken, there is a high probability that neither of the individuals involved in the discussion have ever heard the exact phrase that was just uttered before. Since Google Translate is searching a limited corpus of information in order to decode a text that was produced by a language system with infinite possibilities, the computer’s translation is often inaccurate.
What does this mean for you? This means that translators, interpreters, and linguists will always be useful. In order to reliably produce an accurate translation, you need to have fluency. In order to develop fluency, it is important to use tools like Foreigncy to continue to learn new vocabulary, develop listening and reading skills, and introduce you to novel phrases and sentence structures. Foreigncy users have the added advantage of being exposed to new words and sentence structures that directly relate to foreign policy, so a letter like Senator Cotton’s would not present much of a translation challenge.