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To Google Translate or Not (That is the question)

Paraphrasing William Shakespeare: To Google Translate or To Not Google Translate, that is the question. 

It is only natural to presume that I-Phones, I-Pads, laptops, and other computing devices can correctly answer virtually any questions we have. Use of technology is so pervasive that many people turn to technology for help with mundane as well as complex problems.

However, technology’s omnipresence does not correlate with technology providing accurate, reliable information in all its many uses. One such area of non-correlation is the use of Google Translate (GT) and other online translation devices. 

It is tempting to rely upon Google Translate because it is so easy and available to use. However, easy availability does not mean accuracy. Simply put, as with all technology, the Google Translate platform has limitations, most importantly, in accuracy. GT as it presently exists cannot reliably, accurately translate paragraphs , sentences, and pages of text. It is best used to translate individual words and simple phrases such as “I need help,” “What is your name?”

For more complicated, lengthy, and involved usages, Google Translate is not accurate enough to rely upon without a human backup. This backup, according to federal courts, federal agencies, and academic studies is a qualified, human translator. These sources are all in agreement – No GT use without an accuracy check by a qualified human being. Without such review, GT usage may implicate federal non-discrimination prohibitions since the machine translations posted online or elsewhere do not provide the accurate information required by law.

Here are some of the most recent authoritative declarations about Google Translate and machine translations.

“Some … have used web-based automated translation to translate documents.  Utilization of such services is appropriate only if the translated document accurately conveys the meaning of the source document, including accurately translating technical vocabulary.  The [U.S.] Departments [of Justice and Education] caution against the use of web-based automated translations; translations that are inaccurate are inconsistent with the school district’s obligation to communicate effectively with LEP parents.  

Thus, to ensure that essential information has been accurately translated and conveys the meaning of the source document, the school district would need to have a machine translation reviewed, and edited as needed, by an individual qualified to do so.”

2015 Guidance from U.S. Departments of Justice and Education

“We do, however, agree with commenters’ concerns regarding the use of some automatic translation technologies, which ‘‘is particularly dangerous, and can lead to very serious misunderstandings and adverse consequences for medical documents.’’  

For example, machine translation programs translate text by performing simple substitution of words using statistical techniques, which may produce highly unreliable translations for certain languages and written content.  

As a result, using automated translation as the only tool for translating written documents would fulfill a covered entity’s obligation under § 92.201(a) only if a qualified translator reviewed the translation for accuracy and edited it as needed. 

OCR encourages covered entities to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the technology and software programs that qualified translators use.”

2016, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Affordable Care Act’s implementing regulations

What do the Courts say?

In 2018, a federal judge ruled that Google Translate did not provide translations accurate enough to ensure compliance with federal and constitutional law. To provide the Court with expert opinions about Google Translate and its reliability, the judge relied upon the testimony of two humans, a translator and an interpreter.  The interpreters described their opinions of Google Translate:

“Johana Garcia, who did the translation for the transcript, testified that she may use Google Translate as a tool but never to translate a full conversation….

Sara Gardner, a professional interpreter who reviewed the audio and video from the car stop, testified that in her opinion defendant did not understand the questions asked by [Police Officer] Wolting because Google Translate is not a reliable translation service.  Gardner noted that Google Translate uses feedback from users to help improve its translations and there is no way of knowing whether the translations are accurate.  She also testified that context is very important when performing interpretations, and that Google Translate offers only a literal translation and cannot take context into account…. Gardner noticed several other instances in the video where Google Translate provided a literal but nonsensical translation.

….Both interpreters noted there were multiple times defendant responded that he did not understand Wolting’s questions.   According to Gardner, defendant claimed he did not understand the question on nine different occasions during the stop.  And in regard to the specific question as to whether Wolting could search defendant’s car, Garcia testified that “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” is not exactly how a Spanish speaker would ask to “search in your car.” Defendant, as a native Spanish speaker with very limited English skills, would instead have to make an assumption about what the question actually is….”

“Language barriers are relevant when determining whether consent was freely given.  United States v. Hernandez, 893 F. Supp. 952, 961 (D. Kan. 1995).  In a situation where a defendant is not fluent in the same language as the officer, the court can infer from the circumstances whether the defendant understood the officer’s questions…

[I]t is unclear, based on the Google Translate translation… that defendant fully understood the question Wolting intended to ask.  

[W]hile it might be reasonable for an officer to use Google Translate to gather basic information such as the defendant’s name or where the defendant was travelling, the court does not believe it is reasonable to rely on the service to obtain consent…  And here, Wolting admitted a live interpreter would be a more reliable source for communicating with a non-English speaker and acknowledged he had other options beyond using Google Translate. 

For these reasons the court finds that…it is not reasonable for an officer to use and rely on Google Translate to obtain consent.”

A sign of things to come?

This decision has major implications. U.S. District Judge Murguia ‘s analysis and his reliance upon two interpreters’ opinions can be applied in other cases where Google Translate is used exclusively without the benefit of qualified human translator review. This case is a stark reminder of the risks involved in relying upon Google Translate or other online aids to provide accurate translations. 

In a study published in 2019 by the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers analyzed 100 sets of emergency discharge instructions translated by Google’s new machine learning algorithm, released in 2017. They found the algorithm was 92% accurate for Spanish and 81% accurate for Chinese.

However, Google Translate, according to the study, had difficulty when physicians used colloquial terms such as “skip a meal,” a phrase that Google translated into Chinese as “jump over” a meal.  In addition, when a physician told a patient to “hold the kidney medicine,” meaning to stop taking it, Google translated the statement in Spanish as, “keep the medication” and in Chinese as, “keep taking” the medication. 

The study concluded that machine translation errors were associated with specialized words and phrases and long, complicated sentences. The researchers stated that, as federal agencies and the courts have also determined, “Google Translate is best used in combination with human interpreters who can interpret the … verbal instructions….”

Final Thoughts

To answer Shakespeare’s question, do not use Google Translate alone. If you do use machine translations, be aware of GT’s accuracy limitations. Use a qualified, human translator to ensure that what you post on your website or include in your materials is legally and factually correct and accurate.

Read some of Bruce Adelson’s other blog posts to learn about more developments in language access law, and be sure to contact us if you’re interested in a consultation about your own organization’s compliance with federal language access law. For funny and embarrassing Google Translate Fails, check out this blog post.

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