Robots Can’t Speak Spanish: The Problem with Software-Based Translation

When a business or individual comes across material that needs to be translated, it can be be tempting to simply type it into Google translate, especially if the material seems short or simple.

It can seem so easy and convenient to utilize these software-based translation services; after all, it’s very fast, very easy and very free. You simply input the text you need to be translated, and voila! You receive a translation almost instantaneously. How wrong could it go? Well, like with most things in life, if it seems to good to be true, it probably is. In short, translation is so much more than simply changing words from one language to another.

Here are the key problems we will discuss:

  • Correct Grammar and Syntax. There are many cross-linguistic variables to consider when taking into account grammar and syntax and a preprogrammed algorithm is simply not equipped to spot them, let alone translate them correctly.
  • Determining Context. Similar words can have wildly different meanings depending on the context in which they are used. An automated translation service can easily misunderstand context and use the wrong word in translation
  • Personal Guarantee. A robot is not a person, and thus cannot personally guarantee the quality of its translation. A robot is not a Spanish language expert, and cannot be held accountable.

Uses for Software-Based Translation Services:

Google translate and other similar services do serve a purpose, and many of us have made great use of these fast and free services, however it’s utility is very limited.

If you are stuck on the meaning of a single word, then this service can be helpful, and will often list the various meanings a single word can have, allowing you to make a judgement call based on context. It can also be useful for determining the very general meaning of a short phrase and can be used in this way in a pinch.Basic translations where accuracy is not important, but rather a broad understanding of general meaning in needed quickly, Google translate and other software-based translation services like it, can be useful. For example, it can be useful when traveling. If you are in a foreign country and need to quickly to decipher a menu written in Spanish before ordering lunch, Google translate works well. In short, ascertaining the general meaning of a single word or short phrase in a hurry is ok, but it is a far cry from professional Spanish translation and copy editing.

Where Automated Translations Fails:

Lost in Translation: Grammar and Syntax

Differences in grammar rules and syntax can wreak havoc when attempting to rely on a software-based translation service. These robots rely on fixed algorithms and pre-programed dictionaries to perform translations and are not always able to successfully account for subtle linguistic differences.

For example, a major difference between the way sentences are correctly formed in English vs Spanish is in the use of double negatives. English grammar rules don’t generally allow for double negatives, and when a rare exception is made, or a double negative is used, the sentence ends up being a complicated web of meaning that ultimately ends up saying the opposite of what it would mean in Spanish. Take the English phrase “I don’t have nothing” for example. This phrase is grammatically awkward at best, but none the less sometimes used colloquially.Ultimately, however, the meaning of the sentence implies that the subject of the sentences does have something, by not having nothing. When both “I don’t have nothing” and “I have nothing” are translated through Google translate, they both are translated to Spanish as if they had the same meaning, “Yo no tengo nada”, which is I have nothing. This is incredibly problematic when you need to rely on your translated materials and cannot guarantee they are accurate.

Another potential linguistic pitfall you may run into when using Google translate and the like, is the difference in word order between English and Spanish. This linguistic difference runs the risk of causing confusion for these automated translation services. For example, in English the adjective comes before the noun, “the black cat”, while the Spanish translation, when translated word for word, would be “the cat black”. It’s true that in theory software-powered translation services should be able to determine the full meaning of the phrase and correct the word order, but this is not something you can rely on, especially if you are attempting to translate longer and more complicated texts. Using the wrong word order in professional documents or marketing materials comes across as careless and unprofessional.

Translation Accuracy: Determining Context

As I previously pointed out, many words in both English and Spanish can have multiple meanings, and there is no way to guarantee a software-powered program will be able to distinguish which is the appropriate word. The only way to know whether you mean finger-nails or nails for building, or if if you want to season your food or talk about your favorite season, is by context. Automated translation services have a limited capacity in this regard. This can be a very serious problem, as using the incorrect word looks clumsy and unprofessional at best, and at worst could even come across as offensive. There are many sites on the internet where people have curated thousands of examples of English translations gone wrong and that’s most likely not the attention you are seeking.

Another important example of where context matters greatly and nothing short of a personal touch during the translation process could possibly account for, is the use of metaphors, expressions, colloquialisms and slang. Metaphors and expressions in particular are couched in many years of cultural nuances that must be first unpacked in order to translate correctly. For example, let’s say your text included the popular English expression “letting the cat out of the bag”, meaning to divulge information that was meant to remain private. A professional Spanish language translator will take into account the true meaning of this phrase, while a software-based translation service such as Google translate will literally be saying to your reader that there was an actual cat that had been in a bag and has now been released.

Similarly, the use of slang can be quite problematic when relying on a robot to translate your text. Both English and Spanish are full of commonly used slang words that also vary greatly depending on your geographical location. (LINK TO  importance of targeting your translation to the geographic locale of your target Spanish-speaking audience BLOG). For example, if in your English text you are referring to something as “cool”, it is important to know firstly whether you mean cold or the more colloquial meaning expressing enthusiasm. Secondly, to maintain a consistent voice and be sure your text is being understood in the manner in which it was written, a culturally similar word to “cool” must be used. This could be bakan in Chilean Spanish or piola in Argentina. This is another reason why professional Spanish translation and copy editing services are important, a robot cannot determine your intended audience let alone tailor your message for maximum comprehension.

Personal Guarantee from a Spanish Language Expert

Once you receive a translation from an automated translation service, how can you be sure that it is correct? How much do you really trust a robot who translated your text in less than a second? Our Spanish with Style team is comprised of Spanish language experts who can guarantee that your message is translated correctly and professionally. Using a professional Spanish translation and copywriting service such as ours guarantees that the whole meaning of your text is translated in a clear, correct and professional manner. By using Spanish language experts, you are removing guesswork and uncertainty from your project and can be be confident in the end result.