Saturday, March 13, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: Google Translate Still Sucks

New York Times article about Google Translate:
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — In a meeting at Google in 2004, the discussion turned to an e-mail message the company had received from a fan in South Korea. Sergey Brin, a Google founder, ran the message through an automatic translation service that the company had licensed.

The message said Google was a favorite search engine, but the result read: “The sliced raw fish shoes it wishes. Google green onion thing!”
Google’s Computing Power Refines Translation Tool (New York Times)

Well Mr. Brin, the Korean is sorry to tell you that your translation tool still sucks with respect to Korean, even in 2010. Here is a small segment of Mr. Joo Seong-Ha's most recent article:
놀라운 점은 한국에는 정말 쓰레기가 많이도 나온다는 것이다. 많지도 않은 세대수에 한 주 동안 저렇게 많은 쓰레기가 나오다니 하면서 입을 벌릴 때가 많다. 북한 같으면 매주 쓰레기를 버리라고 하면 저것의 10분의 1도 안나올 것이다. 하긴 박스니 신문이니 할 것 없이 뭐가 있어야 버릴 것도 있는 것 아닌가.
Punched into Google Translate, this is what comes out:
South Korea is surprising that so much waste will be out. That many households did not like that much garbage in one weeks wear out while you're havin 'a lot of time. North Korea said if you get rid of trash every tenth of that will probably not. Are you going to the newspaper without bakseuni boy gonna be something that would also simple.
If anyone can make sense of that gibberish, s/he should be immediately appointed as an army officer decoding scrambled signals exchanged by Al-Qaeda. This is the correct translation of a segment that is really not that difficult.
The amazing thing is that a lot of garbage is produced in Korea. There are many times when I gape in incredulity, thinking "That much trash comes out from this small number of families in a week?" If North Koreans were told to put out their garbage every week, there would be less than one-tenth of that garbage. When you think about it, be they boxes or newspapers, people need to have something in order to throw away something.
To be fair, the article does say that Google Translate is not going to make human translation any time soon. The lesson here: if you want to understand about foreign culture, learn foreign language. Simple as that.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Google Translate is, as your post rightfully points out, still mostly useless between English and Korean.
    But there's a little trick: you actually get semi-decent results between Japanese and Korean. Same thing for Spanish and French. So it basically does a better job between cognate languages.
    This said, I prefer contextual dictionaries like popjisyo or the gTranslate add-on for Firefox. I also find these more helpful learning the language. And yes, translators aren't going to be out of work anytime soon...

  2. I had a penpal who relies solely on the Google translator when writing to me. Despite my advice to him that the KR<->ENG translation is still unreliable and that it is better to use a dictionary to translate word by word (although time consuming but more effective), my advice was not heeded. In a reply to my question on "What do you do for a living?" the response I get was "밥". Initially I thought maybe he meant rice farming so I asked to confirm. He responded that based on Google translator he thought the question was "What do you eat to stay alive?" (뭘 먹고 사시오?). I agree wholeheartedly in order to communicate well in a language you need to put tons of effort to learn it. No pain, no gain.

  3. Automated translation service will always be crappy because language is a moving target, and Google Translate is the first automated translator service to acknowledge the obvious. Instead of translating with predefined grammar structures and vocab lists which are doomed to be obsolete, Google Translate continuously looks for translated copies of two articles and compares them as a whole. It's like deciphering a modern day Rosetta Stone over and over again with updated language rules.

    The difference is critical: additional contents, the inevitable future, will break traditional translation model while it enhances Google Translate. Google Translate is the only automated translation service with a sustainable growth model, the right approach.

    Long live Google.

  4. What do you guys feel about Google Translate's Korean text-to-speech ability? Does it do a good job of reading everything out correctly?

  5. Here's Google Translate reading a line from an SNSD song. What are your thoughts?:

  6. Hahaha I agree with the Kr > Jp comment. My Korean sucks (still beginner) so I often use translators to get a "gist" of the meaning of a sentence if I still can't find certain words in the dictionary. My Japanese is normal, so I just translate it from Korean to Japanese and it works a lot better. In English it's just "huh"? O_o

  7. Google translate sucks with every language, not just Korean. It sucks horribly with Spanish as well... not to mention French. It just sucks. It spits out utter jibberish. Go ask a native speaker instead. Oh, and Korean to English Google translate doesn't even give you a correct gist of anything. It just sucks all around.


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