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.

But check Google Translate now to find out how it translates indocumentados and you’ll see that it renders the word as “undocumented.”

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, ColorlinesFusion 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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Jim Ven
Jim V1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Shailja Mukhtyar
Shailja Mukhtyar4 years ago

appreciate google for their innovation & willingness to change. Respect how they changed the way we do business. Free email, vacation quotes, driving directions, online shopping quotes & global unification w/ free gmail/ chat/ video!!

Sonia Minwer-Barakat Requ
Sonia M4 years ago

Pettion signed,thanks for sharing

Gabriela Maftei
Gabriela Maftei4 years ago

It's very important how the google translator works, as today people who wants to help them
whit the google find sometime inacurate words.

Carole R.
Carole R4 years ago

Thanks for taking time to post.

Lynn C.
Lynn C4 years ago


Dave C.
David C4 years ago


Lindsey O.
Lindsey O4 years ago


And a "criminal" is one who's broken the law. They may have broken a bad law. They may have broken a law that any decent person would agree should be ignored. There may be some lawbreakers who most people would cheer and give medals to. There may be some who jurors will refuse to convict. There have always been laws that ethical considerations absolutely demand we break. Etc. But the person who broke the law still committed a crime and the word describes them accurately. They may be utterly justified morally and we could all be in 100% agreement with their actions - but that doesn't mean they're not criminals. In that case they'd just be criminals whose behavior we agree with and applaud.

Lindsey O.
Lindsey O4 years ago

Mark C - I'm afraid you didn't read my comments very carefully since my comments make it clear that I'm hardly in favor of insisting that rules be followed merely because they are rules. I've broken quite a few laws in my day (as we all have, one way or another) and sometimes felt quite justified in doing so - but I certainly don't expect others to pretend I wasn't breaking a law and don't expect anyone else (especially the authorities) to share my feeling of personal justification.

The main thrust of my arguments on this thread in that regard has to do with the issue brought up in the article - how we use deceptive language to try and promote agendas and to pretend that no law has been broken in the first place. And that I prefer honesty rather than sugar-coating.

Yes, I consider (as many do) that when we have unemployed American citizens its irresponsible in the extreme to allow foreign workers into this country (and I don't buy the argument of some that there are jobs Americans just won't do - if we refuse to provide any form of welfare/unemployment assistance to a person who refuses to take a job they're physically capable of doing, then I am reasonably certain nearly all will choose to work rather than to starve.) And if there indeed turn out to be excess jobs once all citizens are employed then certainly allowing legal immigration is desirable.

Of course, I recognize that some don't believe we citizens have a right to choose who crosses our borders and who d

Mark Caponigro
Mark Caponigro4 years ago

To Marilyn L.: Sorry, I did not mean to accuse you of being prejudiced against people. In fact I do sort of know you, I have read many of your comments, and generally like them and agree with them. So best wishes to you!, and carry on with your great comments.

In general, though, this whole debate over "illegal immigrants" and what we are supposed to think of them have frustrated me terribly. There are many indocumentados who live in my neighborhood, who go to my church, who are wonderful, friendly, admirable people. And those Americans who just want to consider them law-breakers, criminals, seem to me to miss the big ethical picture entirely. E.g. Lindsey O., with her "hurting others through bad behavior," which is incomprehensible nonsense.

Probably it's a personality-type thing. There are people who are obsessed with rules, and obedience, and who feel powerfully self-righteous about punishing those who cannot keep the rules.

In this case, I would argue that the indocumentados are the ones on the side of justice, if we agree that everybody has a right to make a living, and not just a right but a duty to support his/her family. It's the US gov't which is the true law-breaker, the true illegal, by making it impossible for well-intentioned people to get documents of entry.