An Illustration Of Why You Shouldn’t Use Google Translate Unless You’re Fluent In Both Languages And Just Need a Good Laugh

Perhaps automatic translation has made strides in the past few years, but it still has a long way to go when it comes to working between Japanese and English.

The other day I posted this heartwarming scene to Facebook:

Adult & three little kids walking down my street:

Kid: What’s that?
Dad(?): It’s a rooster.
Kid: What’s a rooster?
Dad: It goes *does an admirable impression of a rooster crowing*
Kid: Cock-a-doodle-do!
Kid 2: Cock-a-doodle-do!
Youngest Kid: *attempts to crow, ends up shrieking instead*

This made me smile as I sat in my window reading. lol

The next day I noticed that some unexpected people had liked the status, people who aren’t native English speakers and probably don’t speak it at a terribly high level (though maybe they do now, I haven’t seen some of them in like 6 years). So I wondered if they had just liked the stat for the sake of interacting with it, if they’d understood it, or if they’d read a machine translation of it and…well, what did that say? So I plugged it into Google, and it gave me this.




This is a horrible translation for several reasons, but if you just re-translate it back into English you might not see some of them, because some words will end up correct in English even though the wrong word was used in Japanese. So let’s human translate Google Translate’s attempt:

Adult & walk my street three small children
[The way that the children were “counted” was grammatically incorrect]

Kid: What is that?

Father(?): That is a rooster.

Kid: What is a rooster?

Father is: that goes **Performs an admirable impression of a rooster’s crow
[Invisible problems here: Japanese does not idiomatically use the verb “go” in this sense; the word used for “impression” means “impression” in the sense of “He made a good impression on me” rather than the intended “impersonation”; Google doesn’t understand the convention of narrating actions in the third person within asterisks—though to be fair perhaps such a convention doesn’t exist at all in Japanese.]

Kid: Cock is–doodle-does!
[Google Translate failed to recognize this as onomatopoeia, taking it as four separate words instead; yet, as with the asterisks before, seemed at a loss over what to do with the hyphens. The katakana word that it chose for “cock” can mean “cook” as in “chef,” “cock” as in “male bird,” or “cock” as in “penis.”]

Kid 2: Huge cock–doodle I do!
[Not gonna lie, this cracked. me. UP. Unlike the first instance of “cock,” which was rendered with a katakana word that at least had the correct meaning within its pool of possible meanings, there’s no doubt as to what  kyokon means, and it ain’t “rooster.” Also, for further inexplicable reasons, it chose  itasu, the humble form of the verb “do” in respectful language.]

Young child: * is, instead of trying to do crow finishes shrieking
[Here it took “crow” as a noun rather than a verb, so it used the Japanese word for the bird. Also, while “finishes shrieking” could potentially sound like the intended “ends up shrieking,” what the Japanese implied was actually that there was already shrieking going on, and that instead of trying to crow, the child stopped that shrieking, ultimately yielding silence.]

I sat reading my window, this made me into a smile. LOL
[The word used for “reading” can mean regular reading as of a novel but usually has some extra nuance, for example, a machine reading data, a person reading someone’s mind, reading between the lines, etc. Also, Google Translate attempted to convey “made me smile” by keeping the two verbs, but the thing is that the construction “made (someone) do (something)” is expressed in Japanese by conjugating the action verb with an ending that reflects the “made~”, so you end up with one only one verb when you translate this construction correctly.]

There you have it, folks, an analysis of some of the things that can go horribly horribly wrong when you use Google Translate and its peers. Sometimes those mistakes end up being pretty entertaining, but a lot of the hilarity would fly over your head if you weren’t bilingual.

After tearing Google Translate apart, I suppose it’s only fair that I should translate this myself. That said, I wouldn’t present the story the same way were I to have Japanese speakers primarily in mind. For one, that narrating actions in third person bit doesn’t really translate (as far as I know). Also, I’m a big proponent of using what you know rather than trying to sound as if all your languages are at the same level. I mean, even if I consider my Japanese to be strong, my English level is still far beyond that. So if I attempt to write something in Japanese at the same level as I can write it in English, I’ll probably fail. That’s why I don’t bother. I just use whatever words come naturally, like so:








A Proper Translation of Miss Colombia’s Final Answer

I was channel flipping this weekend and happened to come across the Miss Universe pageant. I kept watching when I saw that Miss Japan had made it pretty far and hoped she would go further. Alas, she didn’t win the crown, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

I don’t think Miss Colombia should be given the crown simply because she initially received it by mistake. Miss Philippines won and that’s that. However, I do think it’s unfair that English-only viewers didn’t get to hear what Miss Colombia actually said in response to why she should be Miss Universe.

Below I have transcribed what she said and what the interpreter said, going off of this video, with notes from me in italics.

Miss Colombia: Yo estoy segura que debo ser la segunda—la tercera Miss Universo para mi pais Colombia–
Interpreter: I am positive that I should be the third Miss Universe for my country Colombia…

Here the interpreter chose to omit when Miss Colombia accidentally said “second” instead of “third”. In this particular situation I think it would have been fair to leave the hiccup in. After all, Miss USA couldn’t hide her mistake of saying “mext” instead of “next”, and it shows Miss Colombia’s level of knowledge of Miss Universe history.

Miss Colombia:
Porque tengo todas las capacidades de la mujer latino-americana–
Interpreter: Because I have all of the attributes that a Latin woman has…

“Attributes” isn’t the same thing as “capabilities,” which is what Miss Colombia said. “Capacities” would have also been a fair translation, though I think that sounds a wee bit unnatural in modern American English.

“A Latin woman” would be “una mujer latina,” an indefinite singular noun. “La mujer latina” is a singular collective noun which would be more accurately translated as a plural in English, “Latin women.”

I can understand choosing to say Latin instead of Latin-American, because to an English-speaking audience “Latin American” probably means “Latin-of the United States,” whereas in Latin America people don’t think of the word “America” as something the United States OF America has a monopoly on.

Miss Colombia:
La sensatez y el conocimiento que uno debe tener en las situaciones que una Miss Universo presenta en el mundo.
Interpreter: I am a woman who is full of feeling and have the attributes that a woman should have in Colombia.

“Sensatez” does NOT mean “feeling,” it means “good judgment” to put it simply, or, as the Diccionario General de la Lengua Española Vox that came with my computer puts it, “Cualidad que tienen las personas que muestran buen juicio, prudencia y madurez en sus actos y decisiones” meaning “The quality possessed by people who show good judgment, prudence, and maturity in their actions and decisions.” This is a pretty basic word, too, certainly one that I would expect an interpreter who could land a huge gig like this to know. Anyone who grew up with Spanish-speaking parents or who has watched a few telenovelas has surely seen one person accuse another of not having any sensatez.

Furthermore, as the interpreter had been cutting Miss Colombia off and apparently forgotten what she herself had said before, she threw in an extra “I am woman who~” rather than saying “Such as~” in reference to the “feelings and attributes” mentioned earlier (wrong though that translation was).

Lastly, by saying that these attributes are things that a woman should have “in Colombia” rather than “in the world” which is what Miss Colombia actually said, the interpreter made Miss Colombia seem as if she lacked consciousness of the world stage.

Miss Colombia: …Que Miss Universo enfrenta en sus eventos.
Interpreter: And that Miss Universe should have for all her events.

Miss Colombia understood that the interpreter had messed up and reworded the last part of her answer to get the interpreter to say it again.

To put it all together properly, here is what Miss Colombia really said:

I’m sure that I should be the second—the third Miss Universe from my country, Colombia, because I have all the capabilities of Latin American women, and the judgment and knowledge that one should have in the situations Miss Universe hosts around the world. …That Miss Universe is faced with at all of her events.

Versus what the interpreter had her say:

I’m positive that I should be the third Miss Universe for my country, Colombia, because I have all of the attributes that a Latin woman has. I am a woman who is full of feeling and have the attributes that a woman should have in Colombia. …And that Miss Universe should have for all of her events.

Again, Miss Colombia wouldn’t even have needed to say the last sentence fragment had it not been for the interpreter’s mistake. I bet this confused Spanish-only viewers who didn’t realize why Miss Colombia was suddenly tacking on this half-thought to her answer.

Personally, I don’t think Miss Colombia’s answer is much better than that given by Miss USA or Miss Philippines (I thought all three answers were generic, to be honest), but I do think it’s a much better answer than what the interpreter made it out to be. I mean come on, who says “I am a woman who is full of feeling”?! No one! And not Miss Colombia!

If I remember correctly, contestants had time limits for their answers. Short ones at that, so there was no reason for the interpreters to interrupt contestants mid-answer or worse, mid-sentence. For one, unless the event organizers were stopping the clock for the interpretation (and maybe they were, I don’t know), it puts every contestant using an interpreter at a disadvantage because then they can only use about half of their time to actually answer, whereas someone who is speaking in English can use all of their time for themselves. But okay, let’s say the organizers were stopping the clock. Why do all that? Why have to mess around with multiple stops when you can just give the contestants their time and then have the interpreter interpret? Not only would this be better for contestants as they’d be able to give more flowing answers, it would give the interpreter more time to put together an accurate translation. Of course, the interpreter should have a notepad along with an excellent memory. Whether they write down what was said or their translation of it is up to them but they should definitely be taking notes.

My interpretation experience isn’t as vast as my experience translating text, but even so I know that an interpreter must speak to the person they’ll be interpreting for beforehand to decide on a translation pattern, and even on a signal that the interpreter will use should the speaker start rambling without giving the interpreter a chance to translate (which will always happen at least once, especially with people who aren’t used to working with an interpreter or when the conversation gets heated). Miss Colombia looked like she was not expecting to be cut off mid-sentence, meaning such agreements were not put in place in advance. This may have been the pageant organizers’ fault. I certainly don’t think Miss Colombia was particularly rude to the interpreter considering how the interpreter kept cutting her off.

I’ve heard from professional interpreters that there are usually two interpreters working together at big events, so I do hope that there was another interpreter behind the scenes who gave the judges a more accurate translation of Miss Colombia’s answer. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference, but better to be judged for your own answer than for another’s poor translation.