Comment: Google Translate is a good tool, but are we using it responsibly?

Omar Cruz-Zamora was pulled over by police while driving in Kansas City in October 2017. The police officer used Google Translate to ask if he could search the car. Cruz-Zamora said yes, the officer found drugs and Cruz-Zamora was arrested.

This officer is just one of the more than half a billion people worldwide who use Google every day to translate more than 143 billion words in more than 100 languages.

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These are staggering numbers.

People use Google Translate as a quick solution for travel, business, shopping, communicating with friends and relatives, you name it. It was so popular at this summer’s premier soccer event that it was called the “Google Translate World Cup.”

It’s no wonder that Google Translate is everywhere. It’s fast, free and easy to use.

But is it being used appropriately?

MOSAIC thinks it might not be and we’re not alone.

MOSAIC has provided award-winning translation and interpretation services in the Metro Vancouver area for more than 30 years. It’s part of MOSAIC’s suite of services supporting newcomers as they build new lives.

We’ve noted the growing popularity of Google Translate. Some are predicting the end of the translator and interpreter professions.

The judge in the Cruz-Zamora case in Kansas City isn’t among them. He relied on the testimony of two professional interpreters to conclude that Cruz-Zamora was confused about what the police officer asked. They called it a literal translation that didn’t make sense in the context in which it was used. In his ruling, the judge suppressed the evidence found in the car, stating that it wasn’t reasonable to rely on Google Translate to obtain consent for what would otherwise be an illegal search.

Perhaps it’s obvious that Google Translate shouldn’t be used for legal matters. But what about when health-care professionals are communicating with non-English-speaking newcomers, or teachers or daycare workers are talking with newcomer parents about their children, or employers are providing safety or on-the-job training?

In many cases, using Google Translate will suffice — its accuracy has been improving.

But as with many new technologies, there are limits to when Google Translate should be used.

The Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria has a lot of experience using Google Translate. It has partnered with Google Translate on a project called We Speak Translate. More than 2,300 community members have been trained to use the tool to communicate with newcomer refugees in low-stakes situations, but not where accuracy and clarity are critical.

Google Translate officials acknowledge limitations to its use. The engineering director at Google Translate, Macduff Hughes, was quoted recently by the BBC as saying: “You should use it when you need to communicate and understand and you have reasonable tolerance for mistakes.”

Joss Moorkens, an assistant professor at the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies at Dublin City University, goes further. He says machine translation is best used “in informal, low-risk situations, where errors can hopefully be laughed off.”

The barriers that newcomers face when settling in Canada are no laughing matter. Poor translations and interpretations of critical content only make the process harder.

It’s incumbent on all of us to set limits on how we use machine translation and think twice before we “Google it.”

Olga Stachova is CEO of MOSAIC (Multi-lingual Orientation Services Association for Immigrant Communities).

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