Do you speak Google?
Google Translate, the famous search engine’s instant translation tool occasionally produces some rather funny, linguistic surprises.
Let us assume we want to translate a French phrase into Spanish, for example. Unlike a human translator Google Translate does not simply translate French into English. It has a complicated internal algorithm which automatically uses English as a kind of “pivot” or intermediary language. That means initially the French phrase will be translated into English and then the English will be translated into Spanish. This evidently creates a few complications and mis-translations in the process. As every language has its own special character with specific connotations, expressiveness and idioms, these are easily lost through Google’s translation algorithm. This explains why the results given by Google Translate are not always reliable or faithful to the original and often do not make any sense at all.
This fact was discovered by Frederick Kaplan, professor of digital humanities at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, who is working specifically on understanding the effects this Google algorithm is having on us. For example, to translate the French idiom “il pleut des cordes” (its raining ropes), Google first produces the English equivalent “its raining cats and dogs” which is then translated to become “piove cani e gatti” (a literal translation) in Italian for example. But no Italian would use that term as it has no meaning. This in fact it is a “linguistic invention” says Kaplan. Further findings show that these kinds of linguistic inventions produced by Google Translate are now appearing in texts on the internet and therefore being shared and read by people around the world. Over time these phrases have become colloquialised and adopted as quirky expressions. In addition Google Translate algorithm analyses texts published on the internet and uses this to strengthen its own translations. Therefore these nonsensical translations have become semi-automated suggestions generated by Google and that way find their way into the vernacular.
Test it for yourself with a common idiom and see what you get...