Is Google the best machine translation engine? It depends…

Two weeks ago, I introduced Ethan Shen and his project to analyze the three major free machine translation (MT) engines — Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! Babelfish — by relying on translator reviews.

Ethan has provided me with a mid-point summary of results, which I’ve included below. I was surprised to find that Microsoft and Babelfish are beating Google on some languages pairs, as well as on shorter text strings. Although Google is emerging the overall winner — and receiving some much-deserved attention from the media — it’s nice to see some healthy competition.

That said, quality is only one piece of the puzzle. The other piece — perhaps much more important — is usability. Now that Google has embedded its MT engine into Gmail and Reader — and now its Chrome client –I find I’m using Google exclusively as my MT engine.

Here are Ethan’s findings so far (emphasis mine):

At the highest level, it appears that survey participants prefer Google Translate’s results across the board.

In a few languages (Arabic, Polish, Dutch) the preference is overwhelming with votes for Google doubling its nearest competitor

However, once you remove voters that have self defined their fluency in the source or target language as “limited,” the contest becomes closer along some of the heavily trafficked languages. For example:

  • Microsoft Bing Translator leads in German
  • Yahoo! Babelfish leads in Chinese
  • Google maintains its lead in Spanish, Japanese, and French

Observing only the self-defined “limited fluency” voter reveals a strong brand bias. If your fluency in the target translation language is limited, it would stand to reason your ability to assess the quality of the translation is very limited. And yet…

  • Limited-fluency voters chose Google over Bing by 2 to 1
  • They also chose Google over Yahoo! Babelfish by 5 to 1

As I had guessed, Yahoo! and Microsoft’s hybrid rules-based MT model performed better on shorter text passages

For phrases below 50 characters, Google’s lead in Spanish, Japanese, and French disappear. And Microsoft’s lead in German widens.

Beyond 50 characters, Google’s relative performance seems to improve across the board.

For passages that are only one sentence, the same effect is seen, though to a lesser extent than under 50 characters.

On March 4th, we made a few changes to our survey – hiding the brands and randomizing the positions of the text results before voting.  Since then, we have not yet collected enough data to draw conclusions, but Babelfish seems to be receiving the biggest boost, perhaps showing the effects of the recent neglect of that tool.

Clearly, Ethan needs more data to arrive at more concrete conclusions. If you’re a translator and you want to lend a hand, here is the voting site.

PS: Here’s an interview with Google’s MT guru Franz Josef Och.

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11 thoughts on “Is Google the best machine translation engine? It depends…”

  1. They voted on brand names…. were there any principles of experiment design that were not thrown out the window in that first survey?

    Looking forward to seeing the results of the second survey.

  2. K,

    I agree with you that brand names are likely to have had some effect on the early results. Since March 4th, we have implemented a feature that hides the brands and randomizes the positions of the results to mitigate these particular biases. Please go vote at and encourage your friends to do so as well. The best way to overcome this bias is to have a large set of data to compare it to. Thanks for your interest in our project!

    – Ethan

  3. I have shared some feedback from a variety of professionals that you may find interesting at:

    Here is the intro:

    MT has been in the news a lot of late and professionals are probably getting tired of this new hype wave. Major stories in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have been circulating endlessly – please don’t send them to me, I have seen them.

    There is also another initiative by Gabble On which asks volunteers to evaluate Google Translate, Microsoft Bing, and Yahoo Babel Fish translations. And bloggers like John Yunker and many others have posted the preliminary results to that perennial question “Which Engine Translates Best?” on their blogs.

    This certainly shows that inquiring minds want to know and that this is a question that will not go away. It is probably useful to have a general sense from this kind of news but does this kind of coverage really leave you any wiser and more informed?

  4. I am using Google translation and I am satisfied with it. Now, I am exploring other sites. I think it is the issue of readability especially with article-type of texts.

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