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How and when to use an online translator, and how not to do it

Online translators can be actual lifesavers when you need to translate something that you just cannot understand. However, they have serious limitations, and that’s why they must be used in moderation.

There are lots of problems regarding online translators, but the most important one is that no matter how accurately they translate single words or sentences, they are not able to understand the context. Therefore, no word with several meanings will be translated correctly. Most online translators offer the most common translation of the word, although there are some which show more than one possibility. This way, users can choose whichever they think is better.

Google translator goes one step further. It uses complex algorithms in order to offer the most accurate translation of a given word in a certain context. This is possible thanks to an extraordinary text database (created by humans), which contains official translations (such as those from the UN or the EU). However, it still falls short, since most of those texts deal with mostly political and economic topics. Some other aspects, such as slang or casual conversations, do not usually have officially translated versions, so even the amazing Google translator needs help from mathematical calculations in order to get the most accurate translation of a word.



Common mistakes in online translators

Let’s have a look to some real examples to see the problems more clearly.

Look at these examples of translations from English to French. “The paint is too light”. The adjective “light” has at least three possible translations in French:

  • clair (not dark)
  • basses calories (low in calories)
  • léger (not heavy)

Reading the sentence, one can immediately tell that what it wants to say is that the paint color is not dark enough, right? Let’s see what Google translator says:

“The paint is too light” as “La peinture est trop léger

Oops. It says the paint is not heavy (also, léger doesn’t agree with the qualifying feminine noun). The right translation would be la peinture est trop claire.

Look at these examples from other online translators:



“The paint is too light” as “La peinture est trop pâle” (pâle: pale)


“The paint is too light” as “La peinture est trop légère” (légère: not heavy)

“The paint is too light” as “La peinture est claire trop” (literally: ”the paint is light too”)


“The paint is too light” as “La peinture est trop légère” (légère: not heavy)


In these simple examples you can see enormous mistakes in the order and word choice, as well as in basic grammar. In a paragraph or a whole page, mistakes would increase drastically.

It is possible to set the software in such a way that it recognizes some contexts, but since there are infinite combinations for every word, the complete database of translations is unviable.

How to use online translators

Again, I’m not saying that online translators are not useful. Since I have already explained their limitations, I will tell you how to use them.

  1. When reading a message in a foreign language, online translators will help you guess its general meaning. It won’t be very idiomatic, yet once it’s written in your mother tongue, you’ll be able to know what it’s talking about and transform it, so it makes sense.
  2. If you want to say something in a foreign language, try typing it in the translator as if it were a reverse translation. That way, you’ll be able to see your mistakes more clearly. This is not 100% reliable, so if you are unsure, you should ask a native speaker.
  3. Online translators are also useful to find out the meaning of simple words or their spelling. However, using a dictionary is more advisable, since they offer different examples and contexts.



The final result

In conclusion, online translators are useful to understand the essential message of a text or to check simple meanings, but nothing greater. As I said before, they have some limitations. What you must avoid is translating or sending a message in a language you do not speak, since you cannot be completely sure of what it says or whether or not it is going to be accepted. This is why the best option is always counting on a professional translator or even sending the message in the source language. If the receiver needs it, he or she will translate it. That way, you won’t be held responsible for an incoherent text.

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