Lost in translation

2017-07-02 06:00

This week Google South Africa announced major upgrades to its Google Translate function – used in 103 languages by more than 500 million users worldwide.

For the first time since Google began in 1998, the Google Translate app will now include full isiZulu, isiXhosa and Kiswahili translation functionality. “Machine learning”, Google’s artificial intelligence team explained, is also being used to drastically improve existing Google search services.

The major announcement, slipped in quite casually at a press conference held at Google’s local headquarters in Johannesburg, was included in an explanation of machine learning by Blaise Aguera y Arcas, principal scientist for machine learning and artificial intelligence at Google. Aguera y Arcas steers a research team of 300 who are exploring the possibilities of emerging artificial intelligences.

Using what Google calls LSTMs, or long short-term memories, machines are now being taught to teach themselves, increasing the virtual capabilities of machine-based recognition techniques. The search engine is now using its own “neural network”, designed by engineers and linguistic scientists, to mimic the way our brains work, picking up similarities between sentences in two different languages. This is opposed to earlier technologies which placed definitions alongside one another in strict grammatical order, resulting in illogical sentences.

The new Google Translate promises more logical, not purely literal, English translations, for longer vernacular sentences. “With neural translation we believe that the translations are now significantly better than they were before, particularly with long sentences,” says Laura Scott, manager of Reputation Communications and Public Affairs at Google.

“It is of course very complicated to see improvements in languages where there’s not such a body of reference material, like in isiZulu, isiXhosa and Kiswahili – the improvements won’t be as huge as the Chinese improvements we saw last year, for instance.

“So that might mean that some of the short word translations are not as good as you might expect, but we think that the trade-off is good, and we’ve seen enough of an improvement to think that those are worth being let into the world.”

Aguera y Arcas says that with more use, the system will improve.

“The headroom for these neural techniques improves as more people use them,” he says. “Machine learning is hard, because it’s not based on rules like traditional computing would be. The things that these conceptual spaces give you that ordinary statistics of languages or the more old-fashioned techniques cannot give you are, for example, metaphor.”

But anyone who has tried the Zulu translate function in the past knows that with highly idiomatic languages like isiZulu, Google Translate can have some pretty hilarious results.

We tried the app’s new improvements in the office this week, speaking to isiZulu speaker and City Press sports editor S’Busisu Mseleku, and isiXhosa speaker and education reporter Msindisi Fengu, who each took the app for a spin. We used some of Isolezwe newspapers’ posters, known for their elegant use of idiomatic isiZulu and isiXhosa.


TRANSLATION: Maskandi Musician to act on Isibaya. Google translate: the makan singer will match the pitch. Mseleku: 1/5 - I don’t even know what to say about this one


Translation: Generations: ‘Not Happy’ with actor’s pregnancy Google translate: Generations: ‘sweet’ to grow a character. Mseleku: 1/5: not even close 


Translation: I want to run like dad: Mthembu’s offspring. Google translate: I wish to run like my father: In my body. Mseleku: 4/5 not bad because the last word is a surname which they can be forgiven for


Translation: A sheep gave birth to a human being. Google translate: A bucket full of a wall. Fengu: 0/5. huh? It’s just wrong


Translation: Memory cards are used to pay traditional surgeons. Google translate: Payable with memory card craftsmen Fengu: 3/5. okay, but not every ingcibi (traditional surgeon) is a craftsman!

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