China in Focus #1: Language Lesson: Don’t Rely on Google Translate

September 22, 2011 | 6:00 am
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

(August 10 edition of Xiandai Kuaibao news article ridiculing comically bad translation used on official municipal police posters in Shangrao, Jiangxi)

More than a few of my less-than-proficient or non-Chinese language speaking colleagues attempt to garner information about China by checking on-line Chinese sources with the help of Google Translate. That is probably not a good idea.

If you don’t believe me ask the Shangrao Municipal Public Security Bureau. Recently the city of 6.6 million in the southeastern Chinese province of Jiangxi spent a considerable sum updating public notices to include English phrases. They translated the Chinese phrase 有困难,找警察, which means, “if you have trouble, find the police,” as “difficult to find the police” (See the photo of the sign above). Not exactly the helpful message they were hoping to communicate.The meaning of the Chinese as written is unambiguous to the native speaker. Even intermediate level foreign students of Chinese would understand that in this type of structure, the first part of the phrase; the three characters before the comma, should be translated as “if…” even though the “if” does not appear in writing.

The origin of the mistake is unclear, but the reporter who wrote the story believes he may have found it after following a debate about the sign on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. He decided to type the Chinese phase into Google Translate. The phrase returned was exactly the same as the mistaken phrase on the sign. I repeated his experiment and obtained the same result.

Making fun of “Chinglish” is a rite of passage for many U.S. expatriates in China, but many never stop to think they might make serious mistakes themselves when rendering Chinese into English. That includes the brains behind Google Translate, who give unsuspecting users an unjustified sense of confidence in their results when they say, “not all translations will be perfect”. I’m not sure this type of understatement qualifies as a violation of Google’s unofficial corporate motto, “Don’t be evil”, but they may want to discuss this question during their next meeting on corporate values.  ”Unreliable” seems to me to be a more accurate and concise characterization of Google translations of Chinese into English. I think the Shangrao police would agree.

I discussed this point with a good friend and a great analyst who cannot read Chinese and occasionally uses Google Translate to peruse Chinese cyberspace for useful information. He noted that the presence of the comma would alert careful users of the software to the conditionality of the first phrase, which Google Translate, even without the “if”, could (and should) have rendered as, “have trouble, find the police”. Unfortunately, as we see in U.S. debates over Chinese military space technology, many American analysts, even those with Chinese language skills, don’t examine Chinese language sources as carefully as my non-conversant friend.

Google Translate is becoming the Auto-Tune of foreign studies. Instead of helping to improve cross-cultural communication it is more likely to create an epidemic of misinformation and half-truths about China: a problem already crippling the U.S. government’s ability to make informed and effective policy choices.

U.S. analysts at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) became aware of the dangers after UCS discovered serious Chinese translation and interpretation errors in a 2005 NASIC Report entitled “Challenges to U.S. Space Superiority” (NASIC-1441-3894-05, March 2005). A source familiar with the production of the report told me the translation errors were generated by their own version of Google Translate: a computer translation program developed for use by U.S. intelligence analysts.

Americans are notorious for their lack of interest in foreign languages. Some say it is because of geography. Others say it is a product of the political and economic privileges that made English a de facto international language . I don’t know if the evidence justifies the diagnoses of this supposed phenomenon, but there is a demonstrable lack of foreign language capability among U.S defense and foreign policy analysts.

Congress responded to the problem with a 40% cut in a key federal program that supports foreign language education.

No surprise there. Why should Congress think or act differently than the U.S. foreign and defense analysts they ask for advice? Based on personal experience, I believe many U.S. commentators on China treat language and cultural differences as an afterthought: something they can skirt with a translator or a machine. There may be a day when the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom are teaming with legions of C-3POs, “fluent in over six million forms of communication”. But until then, U.S. analysts who rely on computerized translations are just asking to be misled.

China in Focus is an occasional series by Gregory Kulacki.