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Google Translator

OK, now it's time to see how the Google translator performs.

Just as we did with Yahoo's
Babel Fish Translator, we are going to see what sort of job it does with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

We put the English original, and then the authorized German translation by Antonie Zimmerman, through the free Google online language translator. See what you make of the results.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: ORIGINAL

Down the Rabbit Hole

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?'

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

Now, if we put the authorized German translation through the Google translator we would hope to come up with an English version which bears some resemblance to the original!

Here are the results:

1. The Google translator has a go:

Down in the rabbit burrow

"Alice began to be bored, they sat for a long time at her sister on the bank and had nothing to do. The book, which her sister read, liked her not because there were neither talks nor pictures in it. "And what good books," thought Alice, "without pictures and conversations?"
You have just presented itself, (it went so well, because she was sleepy and stupid from the heat,) whether it was worthwhile to stand up and picking daisies to a chain reaction to make, when suddenly a white rabbit with red eyes tight vorbeirannte to her.

Now comes the time to admit that I did this little experiment a good 5 years ago, when I first wrote this page.

“Everyone” says machine translation is about to revolutionize the translation profession in the next few years, putting human translators out of a job. So is this a real danger?

Let’s see if Google has made any significant improvements to their database in the meantime:

2. Google translator has another go in 2013:

Alice was beginning to get bored and she sat a long time with her sister on the bank, and had nothing to do, this book read her sister did not like her;. Because there were no pictures or conversations in it," And what good books. "thought Alice," without pictures and conversations? "
She considered just, (as best I could, because she was sleepy and stupid from the heat) to get up if it was worth the trouble and picking daisies to make a necklace with it when suddenly tight a white rabbit with red eyes ran past her.

OK, alarm over every one!

It looks like we human translators will have jobs for a while yet!

My initial comments on the first Google translator attempt were:

  • Google translate appears to uses a different translation database to Yahoo's online translator.
  • Google has managed to translate Gänseblumchen (daisies) but has given up on vorbeirannte (ran past), and hasn’t understood the meaning of dicht (here close by, not tight) in this context at all.
  • The word order in the English version is still German (and picking daisies to a chain reaction to make), with the verb at the end of the sentence! This is such a fundamental rule of German grammar that the translator really should have recognized this as a German - not English- construction.

And the more recent version is not noticeably better, even though 5 years is a lifetime in the internet technology world!

Actually, I think parts are even worse (“this book read her sister did not like her”). Hum.

And it refused point blank to translate the title.

Now for step two of our comparison, for all those of you who read German:

Here’s the authorized German translation of Lewis Carroll's original by Antonie Zimmermann:

Alice's Adventures: AUTHORIZED GERMAN

Hinunter in den Kaninchenbau

Alice fing an sich zu langweilen; sie saß schon lange bei ihrer Schwester am Ufer und hatte nichts zu tun. Das Buch, das ihre Schwester las, gefiel ihr nicht; denn es waren weder Bilder noch Gespräche darin. »Und was nützen Bücher,« dachte Alice, »ohne Bilder und Gespräche?«

Sie überlegte sich eben, (so gut es ging, denn sie war schläfrig und dumm von der Hitze,) ob es der Mühe wert sei aufzustehen und Gänseblümchen zu pflücken, um eine Kette damit zu machen, als plötzlich ein weißes Kaninchen mit roten Augen dicht an ihr vorbeirannte.

So now we repeat the process and test Google's understanding of German:

1. Google translator has a go at a German version:

Festlegung der Rabbit Hole

"Alice war zu Beginn sehr müde der Sitzung von ihrer Schwester auf der Bank, und der mit nichts zu tun: ein-oder zweimal hatte sie guckte in das Buch ihrer Schwester war Lesung, aber es hatte keine Bilder oder Konversationen in sie, "und was ist die Verwendung eines Buches, "dachte Alice" ohne Bilder oder Konversation? "

So war sie erwägt in ihrem eigenen Geist (ebenso wie sie konnte, für die heißen Tage machten sie fühlen sich sehr schläfrig und dumm), unabhängig davon, ob das Vergnügen, eine Daisy-Chain wäre die Mühe wert, von dem Aufstehen und Kommissionierung der Gänseblümchen, als plötzlich ein Weißes Kaninchen mit rosa Augen lief der Nähe von ihr."

And then.....5 years later.....

2. Has the Google transator improved?

Down the Rabbit-Hole

Alice fing an, sich sehr müde zu sitzen von ihrer Schwester auf der Bank, und mit nichts zu tun: einmal oder zweimal hatte sie in das Buch ihrer Schwester las guckte, aber es hatte keine Bilder oder Gespräche in ihm ', und was ist der Einsatz eines Buches, dachte Alice 'ohne Bilder oder Konversation?

So wurde sie in ihrem eigenen Geist bedenkt (so gut sie konnte, für den heißen Tag fühlte sie sich sehr schläfrig und dumm), ob das Vergnügen, eine Daisy-Chain wäre der Mühe wert, aufzustehen und die Kommissionierung der Gänseblümchen, als plötzlich ein weißer Hase mit rosa Augen lief nahe an ihr vorbei.

Well, not particularly.

Clearly, millions of German readers wouldn't have learned to love Alice in Wonderland if it had been the Google translator rather than Antonie Zimmerman who had provided them with a German translation!  And as the updated translation shows, there is still a long way to go.

The recent version also refused, point blank, to translate the title!

Final thoughts....

Again, this free online translator has given us a general idea of the meaning of the text, but it needs work to become an acceptable translation. But this is not a criticism - it simply serves to help clarify the role of free online translation.


These texts are taken from the Gutenberg Project (www.gutenberg.org), the first and largest distributor of free, & copyright-free, ebooks. The Gutenberg Project is also great for free German English translation - look up classic German texts, find their authorized English translations, and compare the two.

The greatest limitation of a free online translator is the inability to appreciate context.

You may not realise just how important this is, but just consider how you would be careful to choose a different tone, different vocabulary etc. when writing a letter of condolence, or a recipe, or an instruction manual, a company's financial statements...

A comment I often read in the forums is that when a computer can understand what is meant by the chickens are ready to eat (they are going to get fed?, or, we are about to eat them?) then we human translators need to watch out.

Personally I think these translations show just how subtle and complex language can be. Every online language translator will continue to improve and become increasingly useful, but will never match the beauty and coherence of a well-considered translation.

Here are a few thoughts on what makes a good translation.

I hope you found this little experiment useful. Feel free to play with the Google translator yourself!

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