It is an amazing piece of technology – put a sentence in a box and see it translated into any of 103 languages. But what impact for good or bad does Google Translate have on a minority language?
That is what we explore in Click for Cymraeg, a BBC Radio Wales programme looking into how the search giant’s translation service has affected the Welsh language.
It was in August 2009 that Welsh arrived on Google Translate, relatively early in the history of a service which was launched in 2006.
“The reason was that it worked,” says Macduff Hughes, the engineering director leading the project.
“Google Translate is built by finding language data on the web.”
There were enough examples of Welsh translations online for Google’s computers to crunch and build a machine translation service of sufficient quality.
That was the theory at least. But not everyone agreed about the quality.
Very quickly people began to spot that Google Translate was often throwing up mangled or nonsensical sentences.
And often, according to the comedian Gary Slaymaker, these were making their way into public documents and signage when companies saw an easy way of cutting the cost of translation.
“Rather than pay for a living breathing Welsh translator they’ll put their translations through Google Translate and end up with word porridge,” he says.
Soon the term Scymraeg, or scummy Welsh, was born and it has really caught on – it is part of Gary’s stand-up routine, and examples are posted via a Twitter hashtag and in a Flickr group.
Among them, a sign reading “Blasting in Progress” was rendered as “Gweithwyr yn ffrwydro” or “workers exploding”.
Ben Screen, a translator working for the NHS, says this all created “negative feelings” about the service.
“There’s so much translation in the public sector,” he explains.
“People were using Google Translate all the time for their documents and websites and signs in particular and they were wrong.”
There was concern too about the impact on learning the language – once schoolchildren knew they could just go to a website to do their Welsh homework, wouldn’t that stop them really getting an understanding of the language?
At Willows High School in Cardiff, the head of Welsh, Abi Rees, gets together half a dozen Year 10 pupils to chat about this question.
All but one of them admit they use Google Translate for their homework.
“It’s a really good method of learning new languages and it’s so accessible just having it in your pocket,” says Isabel.
Somewhat to my surprise, Ms Rees is also enthusiastic.
“Personally I think it’s a good thing because it gives pupils the confidence to complete their work,” she says.
“As long as they’re using it as a means of support, and not relying on it for long pieces of text.”
But she then takes the pupils through an exercise that illustrates the limits of the technology.
They are given Welsh words with double meanings – “ysgol” for instance can mean school or ladder, and Google Translate ends up telling them “the school is in the shed”.
Ms Rees says she spots these kind of errors popping up in homework but still thinks Google Translate is “a really good tool” to support pupils.
“But I don’t think any translators around the world need to be worried about their jobs,” she adds.
‘Life or death matters’
It is clear that this technology has been advancing rapidly since Google decided to include Welsh on the service, with a leap forward in the last two years as a technique called deep learning produced much more accurate translations.
But Google’s Mr Hughes, who has Welsh forebears and took a course in the language a few years back, urges caution with how the service is used.
“You should use it when you need to communicate and understand and you have reasonable tolerance for mistakes,” he says.
As an example he explains how he used it successfully in Japan on a hunt for some shoelaces. But he says: “I would not use it for high stakes things today without review – legal contracts, life or death matters.”
And even professional translators like Mr Screen are coming round to the idea that Google Translate can be a useful tool.
“The way we’d use it is you’d use a source text for English and put it through Google first – Google would give you something,” he explains.
“More often than not it will need to be corrected but correcting is easier cognitively – most of it has been done for you .”
Surely though as the technology gets ever better and is integrated more smoothly into phone apps and earbuds, the day when we can dispense with a human translator is not far away?
Mr Hughes does not believe that will happen any time soon – instead he thinks that the technology will make translators’ lives more creative.
“I think it will move their work up to higher value and more interesting kinds of work because really basic routine work will be done by machines.”
And he has a message for those wanting the language and its translators to thrive in the machine age – it “depends on the Welsh community continuing to care about and embrace the Welsh language”.
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