3 Tips to use Google Translate wisely

Sunday, 4 September, 2011

I’ve translated three TV entertainment series, 72 episodes, about 130,000 words form English to Chinese (both spoken and written). Google Translate has ben useful in my work but using it blindly can be outright dangerous. I will share with you 12 tips of how to use Google Translate wiser.

1) Sanity checks

If you don’t know the language you are translating into (e.g. Chinese), you should use it with extreme cautious. Don’t let Google Translate make you look like a fool. At a minimum, use Google Translate to perform a sanity check on itself.

What is a “sanity check“? Well, if you want to translate English to Chinese (or any language you don’t know), at least use Google Translate to translate the text right back to you.

Real sample English text from CBC News, Sept 4, 2011 report “Tropical storm Lee sparks fresh flood warnings“,

“U.S. forecasters are warning a lumbering tropical storm Lee could bring floods and tornadoes to more south and central-eastern states as it moves northward Sunday after saturating the Gulf coastline.”

Translation from Google Translate to Chinese,


Sanity check is using Google Translate to translate the above Chinese to English. You see I added emphasis for the potentially problematic areas.

“The U.S. forecasters warned the storm could bring tropical logging floods and tornadoes Lee in more southern and eastern countries, as it moved north after the Gulf coast on Sunday saturated.”

Observation: The Chinese translation is actually quite confusing, much more confusing that the sanity check is showing.

Here is a “work around” that is not a guarantee “solution” but better than nothing. Use short sentences. Change your English words so that the sanity check won’t give you garbage.

2) Pronunciation

I love Google Translate‘s Chinese pronunciation. It just sound great. I wonder how good is Google Translate‘s pronunciations in other languages? Please add comments to this post if you speak other languages fluently and can judge Google Translate‘s pronunciations as a native speakers of those languages.

3) Google Translate is NOT your magic bullet

To me, the purpose of language is to communicate so I try my best to avoid miscommunication. I started writing this post because I’ve noticed some Chinese Google+ users using Chinese in their comments to English posts.

I think those commenters may be assuming their non-Chinese readers can simply use Google Translate to help understand the meaning of their words. Take the following Sept 1st, 2011 comment in this post for example,

“睡不着,還能hangout,也算失之東隅 吧?”

Here is the English translation using Google Translate,

“Can not sleep, can hangout, also considered is neglected, right?”

People may be able to guess what the author means. But the words “also considered is neglected” are annoying because you can’t be sure exactly what the commenter really meant. You see, what the Chinese commenter means is roughly,

“Can’t sleep but I can still hangout, not bad right?”

The commenter used the words “失之東隅” which is a Chinese proverb. I don’t think I will use Chinese proverb if I were the commenter. You see, isn’t it the point of leaving a comment so that other people, including author of the post, can understand what you try to say?

4) Closing comments

To me, I see clear and clean communication as the reason for languages. I use and love Google Translate as a tool. But it is a tool, at its current capability as of Sep 2011, it is a still a very young, immature, and not that reliable tool. It cannot be trusted blindly.

One final sanity check example to remind us why Google Translate can’t and shouldn’t be trusted blindly using the first sentence of this article.

“I’ve translated three TV series, 72 episodes, about 130,000 words form English to Chinese (both spoken and written).”

Translation from Google Translate to Chinese,

“我翻譯的三個電視系列,72集,約 13萬字英文的形式向中國(包括口頭和書面)。”

Google Translate - pix 01

Translation from Google Translate back to English,

“I translated three television series, 72 sets, about 13 million words in English in the form of the Chinese (including verbal and written).”

Google Translate - pix 02

Do you notice one glaring problem? How did 130,000 words become 13 million words? The stupid thing is that “13萬” is actually 130,00, totally correct! But turning “13萬” into “13 million” is just total rubbish!

Vacation vs. Staycation – Wikipedia, Merriam-Webster, and Me

Tuesday, 16 August, 2011

Garden of Aton - pix 20

Vacation is about creating great experiences during your 4-6 weeks per year of holiday time that you are awayStaycation is about creating wonderful experiences (weeks, days, or even hours/minutes) during the 46-48 weeks that you are in town.

Gov team photo 2 @ Calgary Dragon Boat Race & Festival 2011

To me, staycation is a mindset. Staycation can happen at any time. Staycation can be a result of having a great meal and a great time at a local farmers’ market (thanks Junian @ Kaffir Lime Indonesian Food, see him cooks on YouTube here) that is right on the main Calgary roadway that tens of thousands of people drive by everyday (but only a small percentage will actually drive in)!

Staycation can be a great hike at a local park by the river or a nice walk/exercise around the neighbourhood. Staycation can be a simple dinner at a restaurant instead of going home and cook. OR If you eat out ALL the time, it can be going home to cook and share a simple dinner with your loved ones.

Here is a friend writing about her recent staycation in reply to my Facebook staycation status,

We went hiking to nearby trails during the day, went shopping in Chinook, ate out in nice restaurants, watched a movie, read a book in the backyard, visited a relative, puttered around the garden, and at the end of the day…we slept in the comfort of our own beds. Stress free vacation!

I believe staycation is a mindset that can lead to us living a happier life.

Macleod Sushi & BBQ (visit 2) - pix 01 - various sushi - visit 1 - order 2

Of course, the time you spend doing household chores or answering work emails, etc can not honestly be counted as a staycation. But the time you spend in between can be. Like the staycation I mentioned above, it lasted for about 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Staycation is a mindset to enjoy and appreciate the various moments of life in town, at the same time as we are living a busy life. Like the saying “slow down and smell the roses”, I am saying life is a journey, try to live a more deliberate life and take many mini staycations.

I want to point out that I’ve defined Staycation as a mindset, which is different from the definitions, as of press time (Aug 16, 2011), you currently see in Wikipedia and Merriam-Webster. See this current July 29, 2011 version of Staycation in Wikipedia. In short, the definition of “staycation” has not been broadened to include a “mindset” yet. But I am a patient man and don’t mind waiting a little for the dictionaries/definitions to catch up. :)

Love That Lingua Franca – a common third language

Wednesday, 3 August, 2011

I highly recommend you have a read of National Geographic Traveler Contributing editor Daisann McLane‘s Sept 2011 article, “Love That Lingua Franca“. I had fun and also learned something unexpected at the same time.

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” – Has Lao Zi (老子) said this?

Sunday, 21 February, 2010

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”Lao Zi (老子) (???)

I love good quotes and I have posted a collection of quotes I love to share and new quotes are being added to it constantly.

I was going to add the above quote to my collection. But before I add it and since I can read and understand Chinese, I decided to check and do a bit of research to confirm.

Well, I found this translation and its cited source (Ch 27) at Wikiquote. After reading the Chinese source reference (Ch 27.01 “善行   無轍跡。”), I am starting to doubt if the translator got the translation right. In short, the translator may have gone too far so I am reluctant to go on a stretch with him.

So while

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

sounds deep, cute, and even fit my temperament, I don’t think Lao Zi (老子) ever said it. And I am more incline to go with the translation of

Ch 27.01 “善行   無轍跡。”


Ch 27.01 “A good traveller leaves no traces.”

Probability News – Quotes I Love

Tuesday, 2 June, 2009

New addition to Quotes I Love,

“News has become instant as it flows around the e-universe. It has almost become probability news as research and fact checking go out the window. Probability news means that you don’t know whether it is true or not, it probably is true, but then again, probably not. Everything is now gossip around the village pump.
Margaret Atwood , from
York University Alumni Matters

First Bilingual Chinese & English 2 weeks 1 gather (number 11)「兩周一聚」(十一): 傳統 & 傳統智慧 / Convention & Conventional Wisdom

Saturday, 28 March, 2009

I proposed the topic for our first bilingual Chinese & English “2 weeks 1 gather (number 11)「兩周一聚」(十一): 傳統 & 傳統智慧 / Convention & Conventional Wisdom”. And now I’ve posted my “傳統 & 傳統智慧 / Convention & Conventional Wisdom” entry.

I took a chance in proposing a topic to be written in two languages by the self-nominated participants but I believe it is a chance that I want to take. The Canadian sensibility in me lead me to give this bilingual idea a try.

You see, in Canada, English and French are official languages and the two languages are being used daily in businesses and in parliamentary debates, etc. Hong Kong and other cities we may have come from may use Chinese & English in their daily lifes, which is why I love to see the participants in this virtual and self-nominated gathering to give both Chinese and English a try. As I mentioned in the topic proposal, even one sentence in Chinese or English is good enough for this idea.

Now, let me share with you a “secret” and please don’t laugh too hard! (smile) I am still waiting for the day when my French is much improved (getting to know a pretty French-speaking lady will help (smile)). I took a French class in Hong Kong years ago but not much of those French are left in my head now. But I think, fundamentally, the willingness to communicate will travel a long way in creating a better world.

So here is my “secret”. My two fluent French sentences are,

“Excusez-moi, je ne parle pas Français. Parlez-vous Anglais?”

which you may have guessed the meaning in English and it is of course,

“Excuse me, I don’t speak French. Do you speak English?”

I believe when I am willing to step into another person’s shoes and try to speak her/his language, then the other person may be much more willing to help even if his/her English is not fluent. (Thinking about it, who said my English is fluent? (big smile))

Reimagining the Wheels – Translation by SpeakLike

Wednesday, 8 October, 2008

In this Reimagining the Wheels article, I will spotlight on a cool translation service that I’ve come across call SpeakLike. Here is how the company explains its own technologies (emphasis added),

SpeakLike’s Human Assisted Language brings human understanding to translation this way: You send your text, a human translator checks and corrects the machine-translated text in real-time, then the people you are talking with see it in their own languages, quickly and correctly.

Because SpeakLike seamlessly integrates automated and human translation, you’re able to chat right away, without needing to set up costly, time-consuming conference calls as you do using traditional interpreting services. And SpeakLike finally gives you a real alternative to ‘free’ machine-based translation, which is highly inaccurate and often results in costly mistakes.

With innovative technology backed by the human touch of SpeakLike, you’ll be part of a world where people who speak different languages speak one language: SpeakLike.

I first heard of SpeakLike after its CTO Graham Neumann demonstrating it at Demo Camp Calgary #10. After watching Graham’s demo video, I sensed their web-based translation technology involving human translators can be potentially promising.

So I reached out to Graham and we set up a time this past Monday and chatted extensively about their technologies and some challenges I saw. You can take a look of a brief demo video here.

The following are my brief impressions,

  1. I see interesting potentials (which is why I include it in my Reimagining the Wheels series) together with some challenges as well.
  2. It is nice to know that SpeakLike has paying customers already and they are happy with the services.
  3. Based on a very brief chat, Graham seems to be laying the technological foundation well and making it scalable. Although I haven’t dig deep but I think Graham’s prior experience should lead to a well architected software framework.
  4. At the same time, I see human resources (good communities of translators) being may be the more fundamental part to the success of SpeakLike. And I think more work needs to be done in this area.
  5. In some sense (this may sound strange coming from someone who is a trained computer scientist), the cool technologies are really nice but others can copy it given time and effort. I would argue that the more durable competitive advantage will be the people in a cohesive and thriving translator communities that SpeakLike will need to work hard in building. And this may be harder to build and maintain than the community of photographers in the case of iStockphoto.

I have been fascinated with English/Chinese written and simultaneous verbal translation since the 80s. To me, correct and usable communication is the key to human exchanges and smooth business transactions. And to translate something well is definitely part “science” and part “art”.

Over the years, I have seen some poorly written English business emails by educated Chinese workers in mainland China. So I think there is a potential market in China (if the price is right and the service is good). The potential is there but the challenge is to tap into these needs and approach it with understanding of the Chinese market.

As I wrote in this August 2006 blog entry, I saw machine translation being provided by the likes of Babel Fish and Google Translate as being inadequate. In fact, if I were less generous, I might argue that these “translations” actually do a disservice unless the users are heavily discounting the validity of the machine translated text like me.

Unfortunately, I doubt that many people are as careful as I am and many may give too much trust to these machine translated text. I heard that SpeakLike uses machine translator as a starting point. While I understand the desire for lower cost, at the same time, I worry about the potentially inaccurate or poor quality results being used as a starting point for SpeakLike human translator. The best chef in the world can’t cook good food from spoiled ingredients. It is hard to judge without more data. It will definitely be fun to dig deeper.

Finally, to be fair with SpeakLike, they are still a very young company and I don’t think the challenges they have are unsolvable. Given time, I look forward to improved and better translation results.

Here is a YouTube video of CEO Sandy explaining SpeakLike at DEMO 2008.

Here is a YouTube video of CTO Graham talking about SpeakLike at DEMO 2008.

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