Google Translate: Now in Esperanto

Google Translate now comes in 64 flavors. The latest addition to the family is Esperanto. Google announced the news in a blog post last week.

Of course, the obvious question inspired by the announcement is, “Why Esperanto?” After all, it’s not the official language of any country, very few children grow up speaking it, and nobody speaks it exclusively.

If you’re unfamiliar with the language, here’s some background. Esperanto is a constructed language developed in the late 19th century by L.L Zamenhoff. It was designed to be easy to learn, combining and incorporating different aspects of various Indo-European languages.

According to Zamenhoff’s personal letters, the creation of Esperanto was a dream that he had nurtured since he was a child:

“The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles. In Bialystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies. In such a town a sensitive nature feels more acutely than elsewhere the misery caused by language division and sees at every step that the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies.”

The desire to unite people around the world across language barriers was what inspired him to create Esperanto, and is also what inspired Google to add Esperanto to its machine translation repertoire.

Interestingly, the same characteristics that make Esperanto easy for humans to learn also made it easy for Google Translate to pick up. The Google Translate team explained on their blog:

“As we know from many experiments, more training data (which in our case means more existing translations) tends to yield better translations. For Esperanto, the number of existing translations is comparatively small. German or Spanish, for example, have more than 100 times the data; other languages on which we focus our research efforts have similar amounts of data as Esperanto but don’t achieve comparable quality yet.”

Practically speaking, though, nobody is sure exactly how many people actually speak Esperanto. Per Wikipedia, estimates range from 10,000 to 2,000,000. The underlying idea behind Esperanto is commendable, but it’s still a relatively small linguistic niche.

If you’re trying to reach customers on a global basis, other languages would be probably be a better choice to focus on at first. And remember- a skilled human translator will get you much better results than Google Translate’s admittedly less-than-high quality translations!

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