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Why does Google Translate work better for some languages than others?

By on October 11, 2017

The quality of translations from Google Translate can vary from good to absolutely terrible, and some language pairs are much better than other language pairs.

So, why does Google Translate work better for some languages than others?

Translation fail! The translation should say 'We help YOU to become a customer-centric company'

Translation fail! The translation should say ‘We help YOU to become a customer-centric company’ instead of ‘We become a customer centric company’

Zero-shot technology pairs

Did you know that Google Translate can now translate from Uzbek into Zulu? And Javanese into Chichewa? Surely there aren’t many native Zulu speakers who can also speak Uzbek, or Chichewa speakers who can translate from Javanese…

Google now uses ‘Zero-shot’ translation technology, which means that it uses intermediate languages to match up content, and that no translations between the source and target were necessarily entered into the system.

For example, if English was translated to Uzbek and Zulu, then Zulu can be translated to Uzbek, and vice versa. The output is not going to be as good as for some of the other language pairs in Google Translate, however.

Amount of data

Frequently translated languages with many contributions to the database will produce better translations than obscure languages. By adding more phrases to the database, you increase the chance that segments are linked correctly.

Grammatical structure

Source languages with a highly structured grammar, such as Russian, often produce better translations.

Creative aspect

Legal or highly standardised text lends itself more to machine translation than creative or marketing content.

Similarities of languages

The closer two languages are in terms of language evolution, the better the translations are likely to be. The word order will be similar, as well as the grammar. For example, translating Dutch to English produces much better translations than French to English.

Obvious disclaimer:
Even when translating something into your own native language, with output that sounds fluent, you may not spot a mistranslation. Using Google Translate for anything apart from getting the gist of a foreign text is risky, as you can’t check it if you don’t have a good understanding of both the source and target languages.

At Web-Translations, while we wholeheartedly embrace new technology, we use only human translation.

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