Like most internet users, you have probably used Google Translate at one time or another.

Like most internet users, you have probably used Google Translate at one time or another. Robotic translators such as these can be a helpful tool when all you need is to understand the gist of a text in a foreign language. Some people also use these services to look up a single word in another language. If you have ever pasted a longer text fragment in another language and translated it to your own, you will no doubt have seen some very strange sentences that don’t make sense even on a basic grammatical level. If you translate between two languages you know, you will often see results that look like correct sentences but which fail to convey the meaning of the original. Sometimes these results are downright hilarious. Further development of translation technology will no doubt bring improvement, but a computer will never be able to approach the abilities of a human translator. After all, computers can’t think creatively or critically (and would you want them to?). For example, figurative use of language is one area where computers struggle. Take the following sentence:

“After the police the suspect had put for hours under pressure monkey finally came out of the bag.”

This is an actual Google Translate result. It’s a translation of the following Dutch sentence:

 “Nadat de politie de verdachte urenlang onder druk had gezet, kwam de aap eindelijk uit de mouw.”

There is a common expression in Dutch that literally translates as “the monkey comes out of the sleeve”. Its meaning is exactly the same as “the cat’s out of the bag” in English. Google turns the sleeve into a bag, but it fails to understand that the monkey should be a cat. And we’re not even going into the abysmal grammar of the translation. Further development of Google Translate might allow it to recognise the expression and turn the monkey into a cat, but what if we want to translate the following English sentence into Dutch?

“My cat was hidden in my bag and now it escaped. The cat’s out of the bag!”

Should the cat be a monkey and the bag a sleeve now? Computers can’t judge from the context when we’re using figurative language. This is one of many reasons why human translators are irreplaceable.