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Gerald Erichsen

How Good Is Online Translation, and Which Site Does It Best?

By January 22, 2013

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I've been using the Internet long enough that I remember when there was a time that there was only one online language translation service worth using, that being AltaVista (which no longer operates by that name). But it was barely worth using, often failing to distinguish between different meanings of a word or deciphering all but the simplest grammar.

Since that time, we've had computers defeat the world's best chess players and do more work with incredibly complex models that predict weather and even political behavior. But is that same level of artificial intelligence being developed for language translation?

My new comparison of online translation services suggests that the answer is no. Deep Blue might be able to fool you into thinking it's human, but even the best online translators won't.

The translation services still have their uses, though. Be sure to read my translator comparison to find out which one will do the best job for you.


January 23, 2013 at 8:29 am
(1) furrykef says:

Computers will never be able to translate languages until they can understand them. Current translation software does not even begin to attempt the monumental task of making computers understand language. Take the sentence “time flies like an arrow”. There are several different ways this can be parsed:
* Time is flying. It flies in the same way an arrow does.
* There are insects called “time flies”. They like an arrow. (“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”)
* I want you to time some flies. I want you to time them the same way you would time an arrow.

There are other problems, too — “time is flying” does not mean that it is physically moving through the air. So the system also needs to have a grasp of metaphor.

We know what meaning is meant because our sense of context subconsciously eliminates the nonsensical possibilities. Teaching a computer to do this means teaching computers virtually everything a typical human knows. This will probably never be achieved until we can make a model of the human mind, which we haven’t really even begun to do. (There’s been talk of “neural nets” for decades, but they are still extremely crude and probably not even 1% of what’s needed to accomplish this task.)

What systems like Babelfish or Google Translate do basically amounts to computational parlor tricks. They have some utility, but they are a dead-end as far as truly solving the problem is concerned because the approach is fundamentally wrong.

January 23, 2013 at 4:31 pm
(2) JTrocino says:

As I posted elsewhere today, when it comes to translation, online or otherwise, I always look to the famous “Yevgeny Yeutushenko” test on translation:

“Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful.
If it is faithful, it is certainly not beautiful.”

Sic transit gloria online translators…so far!

January 23, 2013 at 8:39 pm
(3) sfree says:

Ah, JTrocino,

Were it like a man and handsome
It would be of the same kind. @coc23jan2013

– A Student

January 24, 2013 at 3:07 am
(4) Patricia says:

Online free translation tools certainly have their limitations. They have their marginal usefulness as long as one does not place too much faith in them.

Here in our town (in Spain) it is sometimes frustrating to get through to some businesses that using the free online services doesn’t mean the end result makes sense. They even argue in defense because they assume the online tool is perfect.

I then asked them to take something in English or German and translate it into Spanish and THAT usually convinces them, if they did not take my word for it.

Obviously those who speak only one language will put blind faith into such free services.

January 24, 2013 at 3:26 am
(5) Patricia says:

That a free online service cannot have a good enough program/computer to understand a language well enough to produce a natural translation is clear.

I realize the article is about free online services, however readers may assume that there are no reliable or nearly perfect programs.

The very expensive professional translator’s programs surely must come quite close. A friend of mine who is a professional translator for 3 languages uses such programs which cost several thousand Euros. All she has to do is go over the translation and make the necessary (if at all) corrections. This of course has been a boon for the translation community to enable them to be more productive resulting in lesser fees for the client. A win-win situation.

January 24, 2013 at 1:46 pm
(6) Spanish Guide says:

I would like to see what one of those professional-grade translation programs can do.

January 24, 2013 at 4:37 pm
(7) Aurora Humarán says:

Dear colleagues,

Please never forget that online MT compromises confidentiality.
Confidentiality and Google Translate

Just to have a gist of something, go for it! Never for professional translations.


January 25, 2013 at 12:09 pm
(8) sfree says:


Google translate makes plenty of mistakes but it is one of the better ones I know.

I am careful using this one and every so often I would trip myself.


— A Student

January 25, 2013 at 10:09 pm
(9) Lyne says:

I’m currently studying Spanish. A classmate told our class about imtranslator.net.

As a fairly new student, I think the danger for beginners is to place too much trust in online translators. These translators can be faulty, true, but they also run the risk of becoming a crutch for newbies.

June 7, 2013 at 11:33 am
(10) Olivia Saunders says:

Machine translation is a joke, I got embarrassed in front of all of my husband’s family on my own wedding day because of a so-called ‘trustworthy’ online translator, seeing that my wedding speech sounded far from eloquent in Polish. I learnt my lesson though, and even managed to find an agency I can trust now. So many people are in need of translation and resort to online stuff because they don’t know any better. My contribution to you people: chloe@helloveritas.com
Contact this lady and she will help you with everything, I just feel so lucky that I want to spread the word!

July 11, 2013 at 1:51 am
(11) Manish says:

Lingvopedia is a brainchild of Rahul Malik to create significant and positive difference in the overall language needs. The translation agency has a team of in-house and freelance linguists, translators, interpreters, proofreaders and HR managers all with a strong professional background in language transition, interpreting and multi-lingual publishing to name a few. The renowned translation services company provides high-quality services to individuals and corporate ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies around the world. It works with both domestic and international clients.

November 12, 2013 at 6:13 pm
(12) Sirak says:

nowdays google translator is really doing well sometimes it even translates sentences with very few errors, but they are improving it year by year. Anyway it is not professional to use google translation for formal translation which i have seen a lot of times. there are a lot of cheap and high quality translation companies, i myself always use <a href=”http://mastertr.com/professional-online-translate-spanish-to-english” title=”http://mastertr.com”>mastertr.com</a> they are always doing good job. Anyway still you can try lingvo or prompt online translators which are still worse than google

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