Google Translate: A Cautionary Tale

Not a skræpa.

In discussing the various language-learning resources that students of Icelandic should be aware of, one of my professors last semester commented that because Icelandic is a “small” language, finding comprehensive dictionaries–even to/from commonly spoken languages like English or German–can be difficult. I have certainly found this to be true myself. Even reading kids’ books in Icelandic, I often have to employ a whole battery of dictionaries and cheater methods of varying levels of ingeniousness in order to figure out what a single word means.

Example: I read a book called Það var skæpa last semester, which means It was a pigeon. Except “skræpa” is not the normal everyday word for a normal everyday pigeon (that’s dúfa, for reference). Instead, skræpa is a word for a sort of mangy pigeon–the mutt of pigeons, if you will. The kind of pigeon that New Yorkers refer to as a “rat of the sky” and kick at violently instead of sweetly feeding bread to. The dictionary that I generally use online, however good it can be sometimes, did not include this nuanced variation on pigeon breeds. And since the word didn’t appear in the text in the book until about halfway through, my teacher-provided glossaries didn’t have the word on the vocab list, either.

It bothered me that I didn’t know what the title of the book I was reading meant, so I tried to be clever. I Google image-searched the word “skræpa,” hoping to turn up the word in an article or post, in context. Try this, if you’d like. You’ll get pictures of pigeons, yes, but also a whole lot of cows, which definitely confuses the issue. (Yes, there were illustrations in the book I was reading, but I wanted to be sure about what it meant.) Anyway, a whole variety of Google results eventually helped me confirm, for certain, that skræpa (this totally useful word that I am going to use in life all the time), means “mangy pigeon.” But not before I ran across an article in the newspaper about a woman who had been found dead in a pigeon coop, surrounded by skræpa-s. Which again, confused things for me for a bit.

Alongside the online dictionary that I often link to in this blog, I also have a pocket dictionary, and an illustrated Icelandic version of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever for kids (in Icelandic, My First Dictionary) which is actually really helpful, and, in some cases, Google Translate. Google Translate, I hasten to add, wouldn’t be recommended by any language instructor. And it is frequently missing words, or translates into wonky phrases. (It also occasionally renders proper nouns which only have an Icelandic context into different proper nouns which have a context familiar to English speakers, which is a whole other rabbit hole of problematics.) But sometimes, it helps show how a phrasing you don’t understand can be rendered cleanly in English, and sometimes it has words that the online dictionary, and the pocket dictionary, and the Richard Scarry picture dictionary, and Google image search don’t have. It is basically one’s last line of defense in language learning.

But, of course, you have to keep its shortcomings in mind and pay very close attention to the translations that it is giving you. As a particularly wonderful case in point from today, I give you:

Nuclear Horror!

In which a healthy breakfast goes catastrophically awry.

In which a healthy breakfast goes catastrophically awry.

This text was taken from a website offering a half-price weekend vacation deal at a guesthouse in the country. The description was broken down into the three days’ itinerary, which, on Day Three, begins with “kjarngóður morgunmatur” or, a nourishing breakfast. For some reason which entirely defies logic, a healthy breakfast in a mountainside cabin, eaten prior to a short country walk, was translated into English as Nuclear Horror.

So, let this be a lesson to you boys and girls: be wary of Google Translate.

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4 thoughts on “Google Translate: A Cautionary Tale

  1. I know this all too well…forget the basics of direct and indirect objects, “GT(be careful or the googlers will get you!)” is also missing quite a few verb tenses. In Spanish. One of the widest spoken languages in the world! How is anyone supposed to trust these guys? I’m convinced that they are counting on the desperation of language learners to get a good chuckle.

  2. I’ve used GT a lot since it was introduced, but never trust it for a definition- especially in Icelandic! It can help point you in the right direction, however. It can be quite poetic when going from Japanese to English.

  3. I use GT mainly to get the drift of what is trying to be conveyed and use it for translations of “official” online dictionary (Danish) entries – it’s faster that way.

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