Google Translate: Ten Years Later

translate

I remember when Google Translate went live. Hard to believe it was 10 years ago.

I remember thinking that this relatively new technology, known as Statistical Machine Translation (SMT), was going to change everything.

At the time, many within the translation community were dismissive of Google Translate. Some viewed it as a passing phase. Very few people said that machine translation would ever amount to much more than a novelty.

But I wasn’t convinced that this was a novelty. As I wrote in 2007 I believed that the technologists were taking over the translation industry:

SMT is not by itself going to disrupt the translation industry. But SMT, along with early adopter clients (by way of the Translation Automation Users Society), and the efforts of Google, are likely to change this industry in ways we can’t fully grasp right now.

Here’s a screen grab of Google Translate from 2006, back when Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Arabic were still in BETA:

google_translate_May2006

Growth in languages came in spurts, but roughly at a pace of 10 languages per year.

google_translate_growth

And here is a screen grab today:

google_translate_May2016

 

Google Translate has some impressive accomplishments to celebrate:

  • 103 languages supported
  • 100 billion words translated per day
  • 500 million users around the world
  • Most common translations are between English and Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese and Indonesian
  • Brazilians are the heaviest users of Google Translate
  • 3.5 million people have made 90 million contributions through the Google Translate Community

 

The success of Google Translate illustrates that we will readily accept poor to average translations versus no translations at all. 

To be clear, I’m not advocating that companies use machine translation exclusively. Machine translation can go from utilitarian to ugly when it comes to asking someone to purchase something. If anything, machine translation has shown to millions of people just how valuable professional translators truly are. 

But professional translators simply cannot translate 100 billion words per day.

Many large companies now use machine translation, some translating several billion words per month.

Companies like Intel, Microsoft, Autodesk, and Adobe now offer consumer-facing machine translation engines. Many other companies are certain to follow.

Google’s investment in languages and machine translation has been a key ingredient to its consistent position as the best global website according to the annual Report Card.

Google Translate has taken translation “to the people.” It has opened doors and eyes and raised language expectations around the world.

I’m looking forward to the next 10 years.

In search of a better translation icon

A few years ago I wrote about the translation icon and its many variations at that point in time.

I thought now would be a good time to revisit this icon.

Let’s start with the Google Translate. This icon has not changed in substance over the years but it has been streamlined a great deal.

Here is the icon used for its app:

google-translate-icon

Microsoft uses a similar icon across its website, apps, and APIs:

microsoft_translate

I’m not a fan of this icon, despite how prevalent it has become.

Before I go into why exactly, here is another app icon I came across:

another-translate-icon

These first three icons display specific language pairs, which could be interpreted as showing preference for a given language pair. This is the issue that I find problematic.

Why can’t a translate icon be language agnostic?

Here is how SDL approaches the translation icon:

sdl_translation

Although the icon is busy, I’m partial to what SDL is doing here — as this icon does not display a given script pair.

Here is another icon, from the iTranslate app:

iTranslate_app

The counter-argument to a globe icon is this: It is used EVERYWHERE. And this is true. Facebook, for example, uses the globe icon for notifications, which I’ve never understood. Nevertheless, the globe icon can successfully deliver different messages depending on context. In the context of a mobile app icon, I think a globe icon works perfectly well.

 

So the larger question here is whether or not a language pair is required to communicate “translation.” 

Google and Microsoft certainly believe that a language pair is required, which is where we stand right now. I’d love to see this change. I think we can do better.

Is your global gateway stuck in the basement?

When you welcome visitors into your home, you probably don’t usher them directly to the basement.

Yet when it comes to websites, this is exactly how many companies treat visitors from around the world.

That is, they expect visitors to scroll down to the footer (basement) of their websites in order to find the global gateway.

Now I want to emphasize that many companies smartly use country codes to create country-specific “front doors.” In addition, many companies use backend technologies such as geolocation and content negotiation to guess what language/locale website the user prefers before forcing the user to select one.

But these technologies don’t work perfectly and there are times when users need to be able to self-select the language they wish to use or country website they wish to visit.

Which leads us to the global gateway.

Apple has long forced international users down to the footer to locate the global gateway as shown below. I’ve already written about the flaws with the flag itself.

apple gateway basement

Apple is not alone. Here is the Microsoft footer (on the Thai website):

Microsoft Thai gateway

To underscore that there is plenty of room in the header for the gateway, below is the header from that same web page.

msft_header_thai

Do you think we could cut back on that search window a tad to make room for the gateway? I would think so.

Kayak manages to fit its global gateway in the header — see the flag at the far right:

kayak_header

So does GE (I love the globe icon):

ge_header

You can tell so much about a company by how it structures its website.

The global gateway is more than a functional element, it is in many ways an extension of your brand.

It’s important to greet visitors from around the world as warmly as you greet those users in your home country.

When you send your global gateway into the basement you are sending many users there as well.