Hosni Mubarak: Egypt’s once and future president? Not in this universe, but Google Translate sure seemed to think so as Egyptians made their way to the polls two weeks ago. According to Voice of America, the sentence ““I will respect Egypt’s future president” turned into “I will respect President Hosni Mubarak” in Arabic once Google’s automated translation algorithm had its way with it.
Whoops! What happened? Google spokesman Jason Freidenfelds’ explained that the problem stemmed from the length of Mubarak’s tenure as president, which lasted from 1981 to 2011. Google Translate “learns” by matching translated material from one language to another, and seeing how different words and phrases correlate with each other. Since Mubarak had been president so long, every time the Google Translate’s algorithm saw the words “Egypt’s president,” Mubarak’s name was referenced.
Freidenfelds’ comments should reassure any conspiracy theorists who might have thought that Google somehow supported the dictator. Unfortunately, they also point to the limitations of using Google Translate (or any machine translation program, really) to translate important communications. This is especially true for languages like Arabic, which don’t have as much material available for the algorithm to work with and have significant structural differences from English.
As Freidenfelds explained to the VOA:
“For English and Spanish, there are tons of translations out there, and there have been for years. So you’ll get a high quality translation with the right phrases and words…In French or Spanish, you might flip the adjectives and nouns. That’s not that hard for machine translation to pick up on. But if the change pushes a word all the way to the end of the sentence, that’s a lot harder for the system to pick up.”
Google’s since fixed this particular translation glitch, but the overall issues with machine translation remain. Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be to have an error of this magnitude in your business communications? An experienced, reliable translation service is a much safer bet!