Sunday, October 14, 2018

Google Translate versus Professional Translation

As a professional genealogist, one of the things I do is translation.  I'm a member of a group of professional genealogy translators that was started to help raise awareness of the benefit of using a professional translator with specialized genealogical knowledge, as opposed to finding a general translator or just using Google Translate (or some other machine translation option).  The group formed about two and a half years ago, and so far we haven't made much progress.  Why we haven't made much progress is often a topic in our monthly online meetings.

The biggest problem we seem to have is conveying why it's better to use a professional translator, particularly one with specialized genealogical knowledge, as opposed to simply popping over to Google Translate and using its "automagic" translation.  Google is awesome, right?  It does so many cool things, and the translation is always improving.  Why should I go out and actually *pay* someone when I can get it for free at home?

Well, for one thing, machine translation is far from perfect.  Yes, it's improving all the time, but it still misses the mark quite often.  A wonderfully entertaining article by Fred Hoffman (a professional translator) that points this out is available online in the October 2016 issue of Gen Dobry!Another article by Fred, this one in the November 2009 issue of GenDobry!, truly makes clear why relying only on modern machine translation is no substitute for effort taken to find the correct meaning of an obsolete word.

Then what's a genealogist to do?   To be fair, Google Translate does have its place.  If you don't understand the language a record or document is written in, absolutely go to Google Translate, enter the text, and see what Google comes up with.  It is rarely perfect (or 100% accurate), but you should be able to get the gist of what's going on.  After that, if it seems as though the document is relevant to your research, find a professional translator to do a more accurate, more nuanced translation.

But why not just settle for what Google gives you?  I equate that rough translation Google Translate gives you with the ubiquitous family trees on and other sites.  Since the vast majority of those trees have no sources listed (or list only other trees as sources), I look at them as hints and possibilities.  I use them to mine for ideas for research.  But I never rely only on them, because I have no idea where the information came from.  They're stepping stones on a journey, but not the final destination.

Google Translate gives you hints.  It's a "rough draft" of the meaning of your original text.  But translation is an art, not a hard science, and machine translation still has many years to go before it can truly compare with what a professional translator can do.  So it's a stepping stone on your journey to an accurate translation of your document.

And once you've decided you want to find a professional translator, where should you look?  Well, for genealogy, I recommend going to the Association of Professional Genealogists site and clicking on the link for "Other Searches" under the "Find a Professional" navbar.  On the "Advanced Search" page, you can scroll down and choose "Translator" on the "Service Category" pop-up and your desired language right below that.  Then look through the results.

Of course, not every language is available.  About 30 people come up for French, 25 for Italian, nine for Russian, and even three for Czech, but none for Finnish, Greek or Slovenian.  So what to do if no APG members work in your language?

The next place to look is the American Translators Association.  Near the top of the page you can search for a translator (or even an interpreter) by your beginning (source) language and then the language you want it translated to (target).  ATA of course has members who translate from French, Italian, Russian, and Czech, but you can also find Finnish, Greek, and Slovenian, along with many more.  The advanced search allows you to look for a specialized knowledge area; unfortunately, ATA doesn't list include genealogy on the list, which is why you're better off starting your search at APG.  Professional genealogists are generally more familiar with terminology that appears in documents important to family history research and often have come across obsolete terms in old papers.  Most ATA translators focus on modern-day language and may misunderstand older terms.


  1. I find sometimes Google Translate is sufficient, at best, and at other times, it's a garbled mess. I did learn one tip, though, regarding Latin translations from a gentleman at the Family History Library. Latin to English and vice versa doesn't work very well, but the young man told me if I could read another Latin language like Spanish (yes!) or French, translate from Latin to that language instead. That worked for me, but he said I could also then translate the Spanish to English. It is a much improved method, at least for Latin.

    1. As I wrote, often Google Translate is good enough to give you the gist of what the original text is saying. A professional translation will still give you a more nuanced meaning.

      It kind of makes sense that the Latin translation isn't that great. Google's algorithms are constantly being updated by input from users. There may not be a lot of people trying to correct the Latin mistranslations. And it definitely makes sense to translate the Latin into another Romance language. Thanks, that's a great tip! (Since I don't read Latin myself!)

  2. I always go to a professional if I need to translate documents. I've found it's worth the money. But Google translate does just fine to see if something (like a site) has anything I'm interested in.

    1. Thanks for validating my point! I appreciate it. Where do you look for translators? APG, ATA, or somewhere else?


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