Google Gets a Lesson in How to Translate
Even if you don’t know Spanish, you’d be making a good, and accurate, guess to translate the word indocumentados as “undocumented.” As journalist Jorge Rivas recently discovered when using Google Translate to translate a Spanish-language Univison News story (“Puerto Rico dará licencia de conducir temporal a indocumentados”) the internet company’s translating site had a different idea about what indocumentados meant and translated the word as “illegal immigrants.”
Rivas checked a total of ten new stories. For eight of these, Google Translate also used the pejorative term “illegal immigrant” to translate indocumentados.
The change is all the more welcome as, after Rivas at first discovered Google Translate’s inaccurate ’s rendering of indocumentados and contacted the company, a Google spokesperson indicated that Google Translate would keep translating indocumentados as “illegal immigrant.” “Since the translations are generated by machine, they’re not always perfect, but we’re constantly working to improve the quality of our algorithms, and we appreciate this feedback,” the company said via a statement..
A lot was at stake in urging Google to change how its software rendered indocumentados. The phrase “illegal immigrant” carries a host of pejorative associations that can have a huge influence on how the public sees immigrants and people of color, as Rivas writes:
As a journalist, when I use the term undocumented immigrant instead of illegal immigrant I’m doing so in order to remain more neutral and not use language charged with anti-immigrant sentiment. When you use the term illegal immigrant, it affects attitudes towards immigrants and people of color. A 2012 study from National Hispanic Media Coalition and Latino Decisions found that people who watch news programs about Latinos that convey negative images hold the most unfavorable and hostile views of Latinos. [PDF] It’s much easier to deny people their human rights when you’ve labeled them “illegal” from the get-go.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Colorlines, Fusion and others have been campaigning to urge news outlets to stop saying “illegal immigrant” and instead say “undocumented.” Back in April, the Associated Press announced that it was dropping “illegal immigrant.”
As Care2 blogger Judy Molland wrote, the words that we choose to use “reflect our view of the world,” with “enormous social and political consequences” and all the more at a time when Washington politicians have been debating about immigration reform.
While first saying that Google Translate renders a word based on “the algorithm,” Google did note that the Google Translate site provides a field in which users can offer better translations to improve the system. That is, those who speak, write, read, think in and live in a language have the chance to help Google improve its translation service to render words as they are being used by actual human beings.
Translation, as I tell the students on my Ancient Greek and Latin classes, is an art as much as, and more than, a science. Looking up the definition of a word is just the very first step in translating. You also need to understand how a language works in terms of its grammar and syntax and how culture and history affect the meanings of words.
In March of 2013, Google chairman Eric Schmidt signed a letter addressed to President Obama that called on him to “enact immigration reform this year.” As Rivas points out, translating indocumentados as “illegal immigrants” is “dehumanizing” and could actually impede efforts to “put forward fair and humane solutions for immigration reform” such as Google’s own top executive has championed.
Google has done the right thing and, instead of saying it’s only about the algorithm, Google Translate now renders indocumentados as what the word means, “undocumented.” When will other media outlets (like the New York Times) follow its lead?
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