If Google Translate Was a Human: Part 1

Thanks to contributions from an active user community, Google Translate is improving its accuracy year on year. But it still falls short on many occasions. What would happen if Google Translate was a human being? How would he/she fair in social situations? Let's find out...

GOOBER'S FIRST DAY

“Have you seen the new guy?” Marta said, sitting in a plush bean bag and sipping a double espresso.

“Not yet,” replied Stu, who was swinging gently in a hammock and spilling hot tea all over his jeans. What’s his name?”

“I think it’s Guter? No, Goober. Yes, that’s it. He’s in the product team.”

“That’s the third person they’ve hired this month,” Stu said, staring out the 18th-floor window that overlooked the Thames.

“Yeah, well, gotta start shifting the ARTA7.”

The ARTA, or Augmented Reality Teaching Assistant, had been a hit for Augmentate. The startup had posted its best quarterly profits after gaining ground in free schools in England and Wales.

“Goober,” Stu muttered to himself as he re-positioned himself in the hammock. “Where’s he from, anyway?”

“He told me Spain,” Marta said, crushing her espresso cup and launching it at the recycling bin.

“Good. I can practise my Spanish with him. No es muy bien."

 

Goober settled into his chair, the rest of the team doing likewise around a large glass table. They were in the planetarium break-out room. His Team Leader, Daisy, sat down across from him and gave him a reassuring smile. So far, so good, he thought. He allowed himself to relax back in his chair and his head knocked into Mars which was dangling from the ceiling.

“I’d like to welcome Goober,” Daisy said to the team.

“Thank you,” Goober replied, steadying the swinging Mars with both hands. “Nice to meet you.”

“Would you like to give us a quick introduction?”

“Of course. I am from Spain, from Valencia. I've been in a startup for 8 years developing virtual reality technology for video games. I wanted a change and well, I'm here in London!”

Some elements of natural, informal speech are sometimes lost with Google Translate. Here, for example, “I am” has not been contracted, which doesn’t quite sit right on a native speaker’s ear. The translation also omits “ya” from the Spanish, which can be translated in a few ways, but here should be translated to “now” in “well, now I’m here in London!”

Goober looked around the table. His new colleagues were all looking at him, smiling. All was quiet aside from the hum of the “solar system” above their heads as the planets orbited the room.

“Great,” Daisy said. “Goober will be working with some key clients as he knows the technology inside-out.”

“Yes,” Goober said. “It is the same as the technology we used in my previous company.”

After the meeting, Goober decided he needed a bit of a caffeine injection. He walked across the open-plan office to the coffee bar, where a young assistant was grinding beans with his back to the counter.

“Hello!” Goober said cheerily. The assistant jumped, scattering beans over the floor.

“Er, hello,” he replied, turning to Goober. “What can I get you?”

“I need to get the batteries,” Goober said.

“Umm...pardon me?”

“You know, wake me up a little.”

“Right. What would you like?”

“I want a cut please.”

“You want...er, sorry. I don’t understand.”

“A cut! It's just coffee with a little hot milk. I like it with a little foam.”

The assistant picked up a small ceramic cup that was slightly bigger than an espresso cup.

“You mean a macchiato?”

“If that is!”

“Er...yes?

“Yes yes!”

After a fairly successful meeting with his new colleagues, Goober’s messed up a bit here. He tries opening with some friendly banter about needing a bit of a pick-me-up / needing to get himself into gear. In Spanish a good expression would be “ponserse las pilas”. Instead, he ends up with a literal translation and blurts out that he needs to get the batteries. He recovers well, before throwing things into confusion once more by ordering “a cut”. In the UK, the Italian word “macchiato” is used for single or double espresso with a small amount of frothy milk. In Spain this is widely known as “un cortado” (because it’s like a milky coffee that’s been ‘cut’ down in size). Goober, unfortunately, doesn’t know that, and inadvertently asks to be sliced with a sharp object. He also does so quite abruptly and perhaps even rudely—“quiero” in Spanish when ordering food and drink isn’t perceived as impolite, whereas in English you would almost always use the softer “I’d like” form. The final expression that Goober manages to get wrong is when he says “if that is!” He’s translated from “eso es!” which is used to affirm a question. It can be translated as “that’s it” or “indeed” in a more format context.

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Goober sat down at his desk, pleased that he had access to proper coffee right there in the office. It was one of the little perks that made him glad he’d decided to take the job. He reasoned that he needed to start contacting clients. He had already added them to Skype, now he prepared himself to make a few introductory calls.

The first call he made was to the Hamilton Group, a large chain of free schools in Kent. They had purchased a couple of ARTAs on a trial basis. Daisy had told him that feedback was good, and that they wanted to try and promote more sales across their other sites. He tapped on the name of his contact, Amanda Rudd, and popped on his headset.

“Hello?”

“Good morning Amanda, I'm Goober of Augmentate.”

“Oh, hi there, how’s it going?”

“All good thanks. Is it a good time to talk?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

Goober swivelled round in his chair and brought his hands together. He felt confident and in control.

“I wanted to talk about ARTAs. How are they? Any problems with the operation?”

“Umm...the operation?”

“Yes the operation of the devices. Do teachers find it easy to use?”

“Ah right. Yes, in fact we’ve received excellent feedback from the teachers. We’re using them mainly in the science lab as we can carry out practicals without needing to resort to expensive materials. We’re very happy with them.”

“Perfect. It's sewing and singing, right?”

“Sorry could you say that again?”

“I said that it’s sewing and singing, right?”

“Sewing and singing? Sorry I don’t get your meaning.”

“They’re very easy to use.”

“Yes, right. Yes they are.”

“Excellent,” Goober said nervously. “So maybe we can talk about increasing the number of devices in your schools?”

“Sure, we're hoping to do that. We’d love to purchase one per school, so three more in total. But I’d need to get permission from the finance board first.”

“No problem. When you know something, you tell me. You know where I am.”

“Er, sure.”

“We are in contact. You have a good day.”

“You, too. Thanks for calling.”

“Bye.”

Goober tapped the screen to hang up. He felt disappointed that he wasn’t able to secure a sale on his first day. He wanted to impress Daisy. But at least he had got in touch, it looked to him like Hamilton was a positive lead.

Goober’s first client contact was far from ideal. “The operation” was translated from “el funcionamiento”. In English it’s less likely that a native speaker would use a noun in this question. A smoother and more natural question would be: “Are they working well?” If Goober did want to stick with the “any issues with the…” structure, he could have said: “Any issues with the devices?” which would imply the performance or working of the device. He then throws in another expression: “Es coser y cantar” which Google translates literally as “It’’s sewing and singing”. The expression he’s going for is: “It’s a piece of cake” or “it’s a breeze”. Sewing and singing makes no sense to his client here. The last thing worth mentioning is the end of the call, which sounds awkward. “You tell me” sounds too direct, almost threatening, to a native speaker’s ear. That, followed by, “you know where I am” gives off a very creepy vibe overall. A much more natural-sounding alternative would be: “Whenever you’re ready, let me know. You’ve got my details,” or something similar. Goober also adds “we are in contact,” which in English sounds like a very “stating the obvious” fact, but in Spanish (“estamos en contacto”) would be absolutely fine to mean “keep in touch”. All in all, this is a very robotic encounter that doesn’t bode well for a job in which forming warm, friendly professional relationships is key.

Goober leaned back in his chair and looked out the window at the steady flow of people ambling along the South Bank. It was almost lunchtime, and he wasn’t too sure if he’d made a good impression on his new clients. Just then, he heard the ping of a notification on his laptop. It was an email from Daisy.

“Hi Goober, how’s your first day going? If you have any questions just let me know, I’m here to help. I’d like you to meet one of our top clients at 3pm this afternoon, they’re coming into the office for a demo of the ARTA7. Does that time work for you? Kind Regards, Daisy.”

Goober read the email and hit reply.

“Hi Daisy! All good thanks. I will be available at 3 o'clock. It would be good to know the client. A greeting.”

Goober re-read the email, and decided that for a boss, Daisy was pretty laid-back and friendly. He deleted “a greeting” and wrote “a hug” instead. He hit send.

Oh, Goober. It’s your first day in your new job and you’ve offered to hug your boss. As a sign-off in a Spanish email “un abrazo” would be absolutely fine if you’re somewhat friendly with the person. Google can’t really understand the context of what’s being typed into its form. Is it for an email? A letter? A notice? A whatsapp message? A legal document? If you wanted to write to your girlfriend that “necesitaré un abrazo cuando llegue a casa” (I’ll need a hug when I get home) on whatsapp the translation is fine. But in the context of an email this needs to change to “warm regards”. Google also fails to recognise the difference between “meet the client” and “know the client” (in Spanish it’s the same word: conocer). Let’s just hope he doesn’t offer to hug the client, then his job really will be on the line.