Zut Alors! Machine Translation Is Still Rubbish

Zut Alors! Machine Translation Is Still Rubbish

Experience has taught Mind Your Language that even native speakers struggle with composing basic sentences. As such, it’s no surprise that attempts at machine translation come off like idiotic garbage. But in an atmosphere where gushing hype along the lines of “this phone will translate everything you say” is all too common, a reminder certainly won’t do any harm.

picture from Shutterstock

Over at Fat Duck Tech, Alex Kidman (friend and frequent contributor to Lifehacker and brother of Monsieur Mind Your Language) runs through some careful testing of whether the Samsung Galaxy S4’s much-vaunted translation features actually do the job. The short and brutal answer? No, they don’t. Whether translating French into English or English into French, the result on basic sentences travellers actually might use are poor at best and ridiculous at worst. This isn’t a feature; it’s a party trick.

As Alex (aided and abetted by Kidman stepmother #1, a serious expert in the French language) points out, the big picture issue is that the S4’s word-by-word translation approach means it hardly ever gets anything right. It also has vocabulary challenges: translating toilet as “shithouse” will not be helpful most of the time.

You could argue that being able to show a phone with the translation and original context might still assist a bewildered traveller. Possibly. But the same could be said of a phrase book — and that is a lot less likely to throw the word “shithouse” at a passing French person. Parisians are very judgemental. I wouldn’t risk it. Hit the full post for more examples of where it all goes wrong.

Samsung Galaxy S4′s S-Translate: One part brilliant, one part ****house [Fat Duck Tech]

Lifehacker’s Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.


  • I chat (type) quite often with some French and Danish friends on Skype, using Clownfish, and although it gets a fair portion right, it still has difficulty with the concept of male and female words, often producing hilarious results, though I have no idea what mortifying results have appeared at the other end of the conversation.
    Until the language engines move to full sentence translation, which provides more context around the words, this will always be a prod to start learning the language in question.

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