The short answer is neither. They are extremely helpful but shouldn’t be blindly trusted.
The key to making it work properly is to carefully craft sentences in your own language before you translate them. It helps if you have some knowledge of the language you’re translating into so you can tell if it makes sense. Spanish is my second language and I believe I am fluent in it, but to save time, I use Google translate a lot. Sometimes it works well and other times I am literally rolling on the floor laughing at the gibberish it produces.
Have A Native Speaker Check Before You Post
Whenever possible, ask someone to read the translation to make sure it is ok. Sometimes a literal translation doesn’t make sense, and a native speaker will give you a better way of phrasing your sentence. You should also do a little market research. There are tons of stories like the one about Chevy having to rename their Nova for the Mexican market because Nova sounds like “doesn’t go”! Ford had a similar problem in Brazil where they had to rename their Pinto, which is slang for tiny male genitals. Oops!
Many English expressions don’t translate so you should avoid using similes. I tried translating the phrase, “She was as cool as a cucumber.” into Spanish using both Bing and Google The translation on both websites was, “She was as fresh as a head of lettuce.” In this case, both translators found a food idiom that is similar, but it wouldn’t impart the same meaning. Cool as a cucumber is usually used to describe someone who is unflappable, where the Spanish lettuce expression refers to someone who has a lot of energy.
Google Translate’s Mobile App
This is nothing short of a miracle. In a bizarre turn of events, my daughter has a half brother and sister who live in Sweden, and don’t currently share a common language with us. When they were much younger, before my daughter was born, my husband and I spoke Spanish to the kids, and their mother spoke to them in Swedish. When they moved to Sweden 3 years ago, they had to immerse themselves in the language to catch up in school, and stopped speaking Spanish. Recently they came to visit and while my stepson picked up a lot of Spanish quickly, my stepdaughter babbled away in Swedish, and was frustrated that nobody understood her. With the Mobile App, the kids could speak into it in Swedish, hand it over and it would play back what they said in Spanish or English! I’m certain it prevented countless temper tantrums.
Is There Much Difference?
In the tests I did translating the same sentence with Bing and Google, the results were the same. Most people find that the translators work best when translating into English. Other reviewers report that they are comparable when it comes to both speed and accuracy. They will never be as accurate as a professional human translator, especially with complex phrasing and colloquial expressions. One thing that does set Google apart is that it allows you to highlight individual words in the translation to see if there are alternatives.
Martha Barnes is working in obtaining her certification to work as an online Spanish teacher and translator. She currently lives in Lima and takes a very active role in the expat community.