Is Google Translate the answer to your language translation needs? I was curious, so I ran a few tests and experiments with English and Spanish to see how it stacks up. Here are my findings:
Test #1: Daily Survival
Let’s say you are traveling in a foreign country and you have no clue how to speak the local language. The Google Translate app could be your best friend. Here’s a couple of phrases I threw in and their translation. All are spot on:
Where is the bathroom?
¿Dónde está el baño?
How much does this cost?
What time do you close?
¿A qué hora cierra?
Google Translate has your back for basic phrases and communication!
Test #2: Slang
Let’s say you want to convey something less obvious. Or, you want to understand something weird you heard spoken or saw written:
How’s the surf today?
¿Cómo está la resaca hoy?
Eh, this is a little weird. “Resaca,” Chile, means hangover.
Che, tomamos unos mates?
Che, we take a few mates?
This one isn’t perfect, but it would give me the right idea if I was trying to understand the above phrase.
Google Translate is good for decoding things you’ve heard or seen, but I wouldn’t speak any slang out loud I got from it. Unless you just want to be awkward and funny.
Test #3: Gist meaning
I tossed this common welcoming phrase into Google Translate to see what it came up with:
paz a los que lleguen, salud a los que habitan, felicidad a los que marchan
Peace to those arriving, those who inhabit health, happiness to those who march.
This phrase would be better translated as:
“Peace to those who come, health to those who stay, and happiness to those who leave.”
Even still, Google Translate definitely helped me understand the approximate meaning of this phrase so I give it an A for gist meaning.
Test #4: Pronunciation & Voice Input
I played ¿Dónde está el baño? and listened to it, and it sounded pretty good to me.
I spoke a few phrases into the voice input in my horrible, non-native Spanish accent and Google Translate was surprisingly good.
I’m giving Google Translate an overall grade of a B.
It is an amazing, handy tool that belongs in your bookmark toolbar and on your smartphone. It shines with tasks related to daily survival, understanding gist meaning, and teaching pronunciation. Yet if you need to translate something that is nuanced and culturally appropriate, Google Translate is not your answer. It’s exciting that Google Translate is starting to crowdsource translations from real people, and this should help with accuracy. But with Spanish as with many other languages, there are so many different accents and dialects to deal with. In Venezuela a car is “carro,” while in Argentina it is “auto.” Google Translate’s platform still can’t account for these differences. It is also lacking in tone; if you need your document to speak to a specific audience, you will need a human being who understands formal versus casual tone in your target language.
So for now, use Google Translate for your basic language needs, and bring in a real person for anything complex.