The Great A.I. Snoozing

6th January 2017

2016 was the year that you couldn’t read the news without seeing yet another puff piece article claiming that Google Translate had, or was about to achieve ‘the singularity’, allowing it to translate in to and out of the world’s languages, with a native speaker degree of accuracy, thanks to huge improvements in their artificial intelligence technology.

A New York Times article, entitled The Great A.I Awakening, describes how Jun Rekimoto – “a distinguished professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Tokyo” – noticed that Google Translate had seemed to improve dramatically, overnight.

To demonstrate his findings, he posted a side-by-side comparison of a translation of ‘The Great Gatsby’. One undertaken by human translation and one by GoogleTranslate :-


Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.


Kilimanjaro is a mountain of 19,710 feet covered with snow and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The summit of the west is called “Ngaje Ngai” in Masai, the house of God. Near the top of the west there is a dry and frozen dead body of leopard. No one has ever explained what leopard wanted at that altitude.

Reading through both paragraphs should make it fairly clear which one is which (number 2 has a number of errors) although this didn’t stop Google from holding a gathering at its London office for a ‘special announcement’, at which it explained the huge advances it has made with translation to an enthusiastic audience.

However; as we’ve seen before, when the translation is taken at face value, i.e. putting optimistic sci-fi fantasises to one side, it’s apparent that the standard of translation still isn’t very good. It may be an improvement, but the quality of translation is nowhere near that produced by a professional linguist and for commercial purposes.

Another, equally hyperbolic, follow-up article on FreeCodeCamp, entitled ‘The mind-blowing AI announcement from Google that you probably missed’, is symptomatic of the way the press exaggerates the ability of Google Translate. The announcement wasn’t ‘mind blowing’ and the standard of translation still isn’t professional. As the author of the article admits “Since originally writing this article, many people with far more expertise in these fields than myself have indicated that, while impressive, what Google have achieved is evolutionary, not revolutionary. In the very least, it’s fair to say that I’m guilty of anthropomorphising in parts of the text”. A rather telling comment below the article provides further evidence of Google’s shortfalls :-

“I ran your opening paragraph through Google Translate: English > French > Spanish > German > English: In the last few weeks of 2016 Google public aucun article, I leafed silently downradar people. Il What a pity that because it can be only the most amazing article machine, what freight lei years learning. …some way to go, still ….”

While the above may appear to be rather negative in respect to Google Translate (and admittedly, as a translation company we are guilty of a slight bias), it is true that machine learning will one day have a huge impact on the way we communicate. Until that day comes though, it is important to distinguish between what is essentially marketing guff and true advances in technology.

Foreign Tongues translation has been providing professional translation services for over twenty years, and so when it comes to your business, it pays to use commercial quality linguists rather than machine translation tools, no matter what the New York Times says!

Contact Foreign Tongues now on 0800 032 5939 or click here for The 20 Minute Quote.

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