How "Smart" is Your Phone, Really?

What do auto-correct, speech recognition, and machine translation have in common?

Yes, they are all computer software, but more than that, they make mistakes. Software like auto-correct, Dragon Speech, and Google Translate just can’t understand the way that human language works.  Not only are we constantly making up new words all the time, but we’re also changing their definitions and pronunciations.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  After all, that’s what differentiates a living language from a dormant or dead language.

But when it comes to putting that language into a computer or smart phone, sometimes the message you’re trying to send just doesn’t come across.  We’ve all seen the auto-correct fails on the internet:

And the same thing happens when you use speech to text software on your phone.  While it’s a great alternative to texting while driving, if your phone doesn’t pick up what you’re saying correctly, you either have to repeat it or try and edit it; at this point you might as well pull over and type it out.  And if you’ve ever used Dragon for a business brief or even an email, you know someone had better proofread it before it goes out.  Little mistakes like “in” where “and” should be, or mixing up “of” and “if” can make your five-point-plan or PowerPoint look sloppy and unprofessional.

Translation forces us to take another step back from the situation.  Not only are you letting a machine do the work, but you’re unable to catch the machine’s mistakes.  At least with autocorrect and speech to text, you can see the mistakes right there in front of you, even if it’s after you accidentally implied your grandma is dead.

But, unless you have a bilingual proofreader, there’s no way for you to catch the mistakes that machine translators make.  Imagine creating a marketing campaign about your garden-grown, hand-crafted, home-made jam, a delicious and fruity topping for toast.  Now, copy and paste your content into an online translation app, and hope that your foreign customers aren’t reading about a traffic jam you caused with your overgrown garden.

Even Google knows that their translations are not as good as human translators.  Although the site is great for instant translations and “getting the gist” of something, even they recognize that there are limitations to machine translations.  Companies, medical sites, and even government websites are using the automated services, and, not surprisingly, they’re just not good enough.  Google is putting their foot down, basically saying that they will not make a site relevant in the search rankings unless it’s been reviewed by a human.  And if Google’s algorithm doesn’t catch it, they are encouraging users to report the site as spam.  This is serious stuff.  Of course, the jam scenario is not going to cause an actual traffic jam.  But if people are taking medical advice from a poorly translated website, that could have serious—possibly life or death implications.

Whether your material is about jam, signs of a heart attack, or anything else, think twice about using machine translators.  Next time you think about copy and pasting into an automated site, remember back to the last time you were mid text and thought “Darn you auto-correct!” Remember the last time you found those typos just a few seconds after you pressed the send button on your email.  Then come on over to Lionbridge onDemand and learn about our human professional translation services.