Last spring, the Translation Bureau created quite a controversy when announcing the implementation of an automatic translation tool (called Portage). To justify this decision, the Translation Bureau stated that public servants are using Google Translate over a million times a week. With the growing use of such technologies and the common belief that machine translation can help increase productivity, we decided to test some of these online free translation tools.
To choose the translation tools, we googled “free translation” and selected some of the top results: Google Translate, Reverso, Systrans and Bing (Microsoft Translator). Since many studies have already demonstrated that these online translation tools probably won’t replace professional translators when it comes to complex or idiomatic sentences, our purpose was to analyse real-life situations and simple sentences that a person could want to have translated in order to: write an out of office message, return a call and publish a post on social media.
Test 1: Translation from French to English – Out of office message
Je serai absente du bureau lundi et mardi. Pour toute question, veuillez écrire à email@example.com.
- Google Translate: I will be away from the office on Monday and Tuesday. If you have any questions, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Reverso: I shall be absent in the office(desk) on Monday and Tuesday. For any question, please write in email@example.com.
- Systran: I will be absent from office Monday and Tuesday. For any question, please write with firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Bing (Microsoft Translator): I’ll be out of the Office Monday and Tuesday. For any question, please write to email@example.com.
For this first translation test from French to English, Google Translate and Microsoft Translator Bing offered the best results. Bing seems to like capital letters a little too much (office should be in lowercase), and while the use of contraction is not a mistake, per se, it gives a less formal taste to the message that could be inappropriate in some situations. Reverso seems to have trouble understanding the meaning of “bureau” and provides an alternative. This is an ongoing issue with this translation tool, and it often provides bizarre suggestions. Furthermore, the use of “shall” is incorrect and changes the meaning of the word. Just like Systran, Reverso chose “absent”, a term that is unlikely to have been selected by a professional translator. Both Reverso and Systran failed to use the correct preposition, the first one suggestion to write into firstname.lastname@example.org, and the second preferring to write together with it. To their credit, each automated translator refrained from translating the email address. If the company uses different email addresses in French and English, there is no way the machine translation tools can know about it.
Test 2: Translation from French to English – Caption for a picture illustrating a fundraising event on social media
Notre équipe encourage les participants.
- Google Translate: Our team encourages participants.
- Reverso: Our team encourages the participants.
- Systran: Our team encourages the participants.
- Bing: Our team encourages participants.
In this example, all the translation tools failed to choose the correct verb tense and used “encourage”. Showing support or supporting the participants would have been more appropriate. Google Translate and Bing used no article, and that changes the sense of the sentence, since people are now supporting some participants while nothing in the French sentence is indicating whether all the participants are supported, or just some of them.
Test 3: Translation from French to English – Returning a call.
Je vous rappelle concernant notre dernière réunion.
- Google Translate: I remind you of our last meeting.
- Reverso: I remind to you concerning our last meeting.
- Systran: I recall you concerning our last meeting.
- Bing: I remind you about our last meeting.
None of the tools understood we were returning a call. Since the automatic translation tools are using statistics and occurrences, we thought that “je vous rappelle” was not a very popular expression, so we redid the test using “je retourne votre appel”. While this construction is an Anglicism, it is used extensively so we thought we might get better results. We were wrong. Except for Bing who did OK (I am returning your call on our last meeting), they all failed completely.
Overall, results can be quite acceptable to the untrained eye, but even in basic sentences, automatic translation services make mistakes that most professional translators would never do, and that could, in the long term, have an impact on your company’s image. We promise you, you won’t see any translation bloopers on your website with our work!
To avoid any unnecessary frustration, translate all of your business documents by our team of professional translators and avoid discount translation. We offer professional English to French translation services at a very competitive price.