Online French Translation: Can You Trust Them?

The Common Problems of Machine Translation With the French Language

How reliable are computers at translating French? Should you be using Google Translate to complete your French homework? Can you trust a computer to translate your business correspondence or should you hire a translator?

The reality is that, while translating software is helpful, it is not perfect and should not replace learning any new language yourself. If you rely on machine translation to switch between French and English (and vice versa), you may find yourself at the losing end of a conversation.

What is Machine Translation?

Machine translation refers to any kind of automatic translation, including translation software, hand-held translators, and online translators. While machine translation is an interesting concept and considerably cheaper and faster than professional translators, the reality is that machine translation is extremely poor in quality.

Why Can't Computers Translate Languages Properly?

Language is simply too complicated for machines. While a computer may be programmed with a database of words, it is impossible for it to understand all of the vocabulary, grammar, context, and nuances in the source and target languages.

Technology is improving, but the fact is that machine translation will never offer more than a general idea about what a text says. When it comes to translation, a machine simply cannot take the place of a human.

Are Online Translators More Trouble Than They're Worth?

Whether or not online translators like Google Translate, Babylon, and Reverso are useful is going to depend on your purpose.

If you need to quickly translate a single French word into English, you'll probably be okay. Similarly, simple, common phrases may translate well, but you must be wary.

For instance, typing the sentence "I went up the hill" into Reverso produces "Je suis monté la colline." In the reverse translation, Reverso's English result is "I rose the hill."

While the concept is there and a human could figure out that you probably 'went up the hill' rather than 'lifted the hill,' it wasn't perfect.

However, can you use an online translator to recall that chat is French for "cat" and that chat noir means a "black cat"? Absolutely, simple vocabulary is easy for the computer, but sentence structure and nuance require human logic.

To put this plainly:

  • Should you be completing your French homework with Google Translate? No, that's cheating, first of all. Secondly, your French teacher will suspect where your answer came from.
  • Adults hoping to impress a French business associate should also put a real effort into learning the language. Even if you mess up, they will appreciate that you took the time to try rather than send entire emails translated by Google. If it's really important, hire a translator.

Online translators, which can be used to translate web pages, emails, or a pasted-in block of text, can be useful. If you need to access a website written in French, turn on the translator to get a basic idea of what was written.

However, you should not assume that the translation is a direct quote or completely accurate. You will need to read between the lines on any machine translation.

Use it for guidance and basic comprehension, but little else.

Remember, also, that translation - whether by human or computer - is an inexact science and that there are always numerous acceptable possibilities.

When Machine Translation Goes Wrong

How accurate (or inaccurate) are computers at translating? To demonstrate some of the problems inherent in machine translation, let's look at how three sentences fared in five online translators.

In order to check the accuracy, each translation is run back through the same translator (reverse translation is a common verification technique of professional translators). There is also a human translation of each sentence for comparison.

Sentence 1: I love you very much, honey.

This is a very simple sentence - beginning students could translate it with little difficulty.

Online TranslatorTranslationReverse Translation
BabylonJe t'aime beaucoup, miel.I love you much, honey.
Reverso Je vous aime beaucoup, le miel.I like very much you, the honey.
FreeTranslationJe vous aime beaucoup, le miel.I like you a lot, the honey.
Google TranslateJe t'aime beaucoup, le miel.*I love you very much, honey.
BingJe t'aime beaucoup, miel.I love you, honey.

What went wrong?

  • All of the automatic translators took the word "honey" literally and used miel rather than the intended term of endearment.
  • Three translators compounded the error by adding the definite article. The same three translated "you" as vous, which doesn't make much sense, given the meaning of the sentence.
  • Bing lost beaucoup in its reverse translation, but Reverso did a particularly bad job - the word order is atrocious.

Human Translation: Je t'aime beaucoup, mon chéri.

Sentence 2: How many times did he tell you to write it?

Let's see if a subordinate clause causes any trouble.

Online TranslatorTranslationReverse Translation
BabylonCombien de fois vous a-t-il dit de lui écrire?How much time does it have says you to write to him?
Reverso Combien de fois vous a-t-il dit de l'écrire ?How many times did he tell you to write it?
FreeTranslationCombien de fois a-t-il dit que vous écrivez il?How many times he says that you write it?
Google TranslateCombien de fois a-t-il de vous dire à l'écrire?*How many times did he tell you to write?
BingCombien de fois il vous a-t-il dit à l'écrire ?How many times he has told you to write it?

What went wrong?

  • Babylon inexplicably decided that "it" was an indirect object, rather than the direct object that it is, which completely changed the meaning. In its reverse translation, it mistakenly translated the passé composé's auxiliary verb and main verb separately.
  • Google added the preposition de, which makes it sound like "how many times does he have to tell you to write it." In its reverse translation, it lost the direct object.
  • FreeTranslation and Bing did even worse, with grammatically incorrect French translations.

    Reverso's translation and reverse translation are both excellent.

    Human Translation: Combien de fois est-ce qu'il t'a dit de l'écrire ? or Combien de fois t'a-t-il dit de l'écrire ?

    Sentence 3: Every summer, I drive up to the lake house and cruise around with my friends.

    A longer and more complicated sentence.

    Online TranslatorTranslationReverse Translation
    BabylonChaque été, je conduis à la maison et à la croisière de lac autour avec mes amis.Each summer, I lead to the house and to the cruising of lake around with my friends.
    Reverso Chaque été, je conduis(roule) jusqu'à la maison de lac et la croisière autour avec mes amis.Every summer, I lead(drive) (run)((drive)) up to the house of lake and the cruise all around with my friends.
    FreeTranslationChaque été, je conduis jusqu'à la maison de lac et jusqu'à la croisière environ avec mes amis.Every summer, I drive to the house lake and to the cruise about with my friends.
    Google TranslateChaque été, je conduis à la maison et le lac autour de croisière avec mes amis.*Every summer, I drive at home and around the lake cruise with my friends.
    BingTous les étés, j'ai avancer jusqu'à la maison du lac et croisière autour avec mes amis.Every summer, I proceed to the home of the Lake and cruise around with my friends.

    What went wrong?

    • All five translators were fooled by the phrasal verb "cruise around" and all but Google by "drive up" - they translated the verb and preposition separately.
    • The pairing "house and cruise" caused problems as well. It seems that the translators could not figure out that "cruise" was a verb rather than a noun in this instance.
    • In its reverse, Google was fooled by et, thinking that "I drive to the house" and "to the lake" are separate actions.
    • Less shocking but still incorrect, is the translation of drive as conduire - the latter is a transitive verb, but "drive" is used here intransitively. Bing chose avancer, which is not only the wrong verb but in an impossible conjugation; it should just be j'avance.
    • And what's up with capital "L" with Lake in Bing's reverse translation?

    Human Translation: Chaque été, je vais en voiture à la maison de lac et je roule avec mes amis.

    Common Problems in Machine Translation

    Though a small sample, the above translations offer a pretty good idea of the problems inherent in machine translation. While online translators can give you some idea about the meaning of a sentence, their numerous flaws make it impossible for them to ever replace professional translators.

    If you're just after the gist and don't mind decoding the results, you can probably get by with an online translator. But if you need a translation that you can count on, hire a translator. What you lose in money you'll more than make up for in professionalism, accuracy, and dependability.