Google Translate is seemingly everywhere – on phones, I-pads, apps, laptops – everything that has an Internet connection. While the use of Google Translate and other online translation devices is growing, understanding of their limitations is not. Indeed, the assumption that online translation sites and apps are as accurate as their omnipresence is a fraught one and can have serious consequences.
Many courts, agencies, and reviewing organizations have concluded that Google Translate remains undependable to rely upon consistently. For example, in the case of United States v. Ramirez-Mendoza, Case # 4:20-CR-00107, U.S. District Judge Brann decided:
“The Court is not convinced that Google Translate accurately translated Conrad’s request for consent into Spanish. The Government bears the burden of proof, but failed to introduce any evidence showing that the word “registrar” actually means “to search.”
Precision is important, particularly in this context, and the Court believes that more was needed to establish the accuracy of Google Translate…”
Now comes one of the latest examples of online translation errors, albeit one with an implausibly funny angle.
According to the Gothamist, during the summer of 2023, a Chinese-language speaking reporter noticed some odd postings on a New York City agency website:
“… a reporter for a Chinese-language news site noticed something strange about the text on a New York City agency’s website after clicking on the “Translate” button and opting for the Chinese-language translation. What they got back were phrases such as ‘Building a City Together with the Communist Party of China.’
There were more than a few references to the Chinese Communist Party on the City Planning Commission overview page when the user opted for a Chinese translation. ‘In this way, the Chinese Communist Party and the public can make wise decisions on every project that passes public review,’ read one of the passages.
Included were links to a history of the Chinese Communist Party and reports issued by the party.
The reporter, who wrote a subsequent story for Sing Tao Daily [a Chinese newspaper], notified the city agency, which in turn notified the city’s Office of Technology and Innovation. It uncovered an apparent wrinkle in the city’s efforts to communicate with its ever-growing population of Chinese-language speakers. Google Translate, which serves as the default for all city agencies, had mistakenly converted every reference to the City Planning Commission’s initials, CPC, into Chinese Communist Party.
The same bug also translated “Contact DHS” – as in Department of Homeless Services – into “Contact Department of Homeland Security,” according to Der-lin Chao, a professor of Chinese at Hunter College, who confirmed the account written in the Sing Tao Daily.”
Once informed about the website misdirection, City officials made manual fixes to the offending web page and told the Gothamist that such errors were extremely rare.
As was further reported, the City reaction noted the absurdity of the mistake, prompting:
“… laughs in other corners of city government as well as criticisms from immigrant rights advocates who said the episode points to a bigger problem in language access for immigrant communities.
This is hilarious, said Councilmember Shahana Hanif. Our communities don’t feel comfortable utilizing government resources, and one of those reasons is because official government documents and important notices, even if they’re translated, the quality of translation is incomprehensible.
Last year, Hanif pushed for the creation of an Office of Translation and Interpretation within the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, designed to provide interpreters to various city agencies, but saw the effort stall. And because we don’t have that, this is what you get, she said…
Alina Shen, an organizer with CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, an advocacy group for poor and working-class Asian New Yorkers, said ‘every CAAAV member has had experiences with inadequate and inaccurate language interpretation’ and that poorly translated materials reflected larger problems about how government deals with immigrant groups.
These include the Chinese community, the city’s largest Asian subgroup. In 2021, the city was home to over 615,000 Chinese residents, according to the most recent Census survey. ‘We know that gaps in interpretation services reflect deeper inequalities about who the city imagines they serve and the limitations to how these communities are allowed to shape the future of the city,’ Shen said.”
Der-lin Chao, a professor of Chinese at New York City’s Hunter College, has regularly chronicled the inaccuracy inherent in current online translation tools. Indeed, her research prompts her to provide the following simple advice to her students – “I always warn [them] not to use Google Translate.”
Digital.gov has additional guiding advice about using online translation services, https://digital.gov/resources/introduction-to-translation-technology/#what-are-the-downsides-of-using-translation-technology-2:
“Agencies should use translation technology to create accurate, findable content. But they should not rely solely on automatic machine translation services or computer-aided technology. All translations should be checked by a competent human translator.
According to the Department of Justice’s Limited English Proficiency Committee of the Title VI Interagency Working Group:
If the entity utilizes machine translation software, the entity should have a human translator proofread all content containing vital information before posting it to ensure the accuracy of the translated information. Website content that is translated and checked by qualified human translators is more likely to be accurate and locatable by LEP users.” — Improving Access to Public Websites and Digital Services for Limited English Proficient (LEP) Persons (PDF, 2.4 MB, 17 pages, December 2021)
Related, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tells health programs covered by Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act:
[B]ecause written translation must be provided by a qualified translator, automated translation alone likely would not be sufficient. Machine translation, which is one type of automated translation technology, translates text by performing simple substitution of words using statistical techniques. Given differences across languages in syntax, figures of speech, and vocabulary, the simple substitution of words using statistical techniques may produce highly unreliable translations for certain languages and written content. A quality check performed by a qualified translator, such as reviewing the translation for accuracy and editing the translation if needed, would likely be necessary.” — Question 42 in Section 1557: Frequently Asked Questions
© Bruce L. Adelson 2023. All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only. No legal advice is intended or conveyed.
Bruce L. Adelson, Esq., is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise. Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Trial Attorney. Mr. Adelson is a faculty member at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh School of Law where he teaches organizational culture, implicit bias, cultural and civil rights awareness.
Mr. Adelson’s blogs are a Bromberg exclusive.