With Online Services, Foreign Texts Can Get Lost in Translation

As the need for global communication increases, online translation services are in greater demand. Users are attracted to the breakneck speed at which online translation is done and the price. Those that aren’t free are still fairly inexpensive.

New languages have been added to the traditional lists and Arabic, in particular, has been in demand recently. I spent the past few weeks tinkering with four free online services, translating various texts from English to Arabic and vice versa to test their speed and accuracy. I tested Google’s Language Tools and services from Applied Language Solutions, WorldLingo Translations and Systran.

Customers who have been waiting for such services to be perfected will find improvements are slow in coming. Overall, I found the Arabic-English translations rife with syntactic and semantic errors — from the merely too-literal to the laughably bad.

For the purposes of my test, I selected different texts: conversation, news stories, and legal and scientific documents. First, I picked an Associated Press story that started with the sentence: “A wintry storm caked the center of the nation with a thick layer of ice Monday…”

I got a variety of imprecise translations into Arabic (which I’m interpreting below).

Applied Language and WorldLingo offered identical translations, which were slightly better than the other two: “A storm covered the center’s storm from the nation with a thick layer snow Monday.”

Systran: “A stormy storm covered the center for the mother with a thick layer snow Monday.”

Language Tools: “The storm grilled bloc in the middle of the nation with a thick layer of snow Monday.”

The translations would have been nearly impossible to understand were I not fluent in both languages. It’s worse in Arabic than it seems above. Arabic has masculine and feminine nouns, verbs and adjectives that have to agree in a sentence; otherwise, the sentence makes a native speaker wince.

Next, I processed some longer news stories. Only Language Tools didn’t set text limits. WorldLingo and Applied Language each had a 150-word limit. Systran didn’t specify a limit, but it rendered only a short part of the text.

Language Tools came out ahead this time. It was the only one to translate the word “Taliban” from Arabic to English contextually correct, as a movement. The other services translated it literally from the Arabic as “two students.”

The services were better at translating everyday phrases, but even these sometimes came out missing a word, or were scrambled.

In this category, I again found translations by Google’s Language Tools closest to the original texts. Still, there is much room for improvement. Google, for example, translated from Arabic to English the simple question, “Do you speak English?” as “Do they speak English?”

Other services got the pronoun right but botched other parts of the sentence. With the exception of Google, all three services, oddly, attempted to write the Arabic word for “English” in the Roman alphabet (aalaanklyzyh) in the middle of an Arabic sentence.

All the services did a terrible job with metaphors and other figurative uses of the language, whether Arabic or English.

The weakest performance by all the services was the translation of legal and scientific texts. Only Language Tools correctly translated the word “noncompliance” in a legal text, for example. Instead of using the proper word in Arabic, the other services transliterated it phonetically into a meaningless word.

All four services have an interface that is easy to use, with a pull-down menu listing several languages. Each has two text boxes, one for the original language and the other for the desired translation. They also translate entire Web sites, but the translation again tended to be awkwardly verbatim.

Google also has a feature that lets you translate search results free. (It also offers users an option to send in a better translation.) The others require you to become a paid subscriber. English and Arabic results appeared side-by-side.

I also liked WorldLingo and Applied Language’s email-translation feature. After clicking the email button, a window with two text boxes pops up. You enter your name and email address, and the recipient’s name and address. When you send the message with WorldLingo, both recipient and sender see the message in both languages. Neither Google nor Systran has this feature.

Systran has a convenient swap button that lets users easily flip the source and target languages. This saves time when going back-and-forth between two languages. The other services have you use pull-down menus. Systran’s interface also allows prompt translation of a text as soon as it’s pasted in a text box, without the need to click a “translate” button.

Free online translation tools help travelers or those curious about languages, but I found them unreliable for important documents. Use with caution.

Write to Sarmad Ali at sarmad.ali@wsj.com Walt Mossberg is on vacation.


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