Why Does Google Translate Do Such a Piss Poor Job On Chinese?

It’s kind of a running joke now. My friends post stuff on Facebook in Chinese and they ask me to run it through Google Translate and post the result. Usually you can get the gist of it but sometimes it’s just completely awful.

I’m going to try a little test here. I’m going to take the title of this post and run it through Google to translate into Chinese, which gives me:


Someone else will have to tell me if that’s close or not. Then I’ll take the above and translate it back to English, which gives me:

Why Google translate to do so piss poor recruitment in China?

Cute, huh? Actually not too bad, aside from Google at some point not getting the word “job” right.

Anyway, I was looking up a Tai Po restaurant on Open Rice. There are no English reviews so I used inline translation in Chrome. Not only next to useless, but also quite funny. Here’s the restaurant listing (for those who want to see the original Chinese) and here is the first translated review:

Today, ate dinner at half past six, from Tai Po Centre has been OK, OK over Beppu, Mummy, then not tried to accompany drainage try it! Actually, I do not tease for Beppu Nuisance-what a good impression, but called Mommy , you will fight about … two individuals called Left 4 kind of wild, wild drinking 2 cups all child (drinks buy one get one) Dstring butter into the dry sample had had fried bad bad like that, would eat into the Well of seeking fresh baa taste, but eat off the entrance are OK, Well tough all child Nuisance slag. , I called kimchi Pork Ramen , in fact rang at home and cook a pig kimchi ramen plus D are all Ciwu Duo flavor, left more than a few lines Pork roast Hello. Mommy to theGillette pork chop noodles , soup too light, but Gillette few good fried pork chop, crunchy outer layer, which has gravy, Wucuo! Grilled saury OK friends, blazing power, Nuisance Zheng taste Qualified! lychee soda syrup just add soda water, add canned litchi grain, Nuisance special, but not even drink. as just filling the belly of a meal is also possible, the quality of the chain is so!

Tough all child Nusiance slag?

Here’s the last one – the translated title is “New feces pit.” Probably they didn’t care for the place.

Why I waited for something to eat first resistance Link? All because of technical problems. Store clerk tied to novices friends, watching the door of the woman Essentials too softly, Feizi number and㩒too fast, one that should never see someone flying next Fei, turn left both my enemy lines beside Temple gel, ring Listen to live drainage Essentials door quickly after I had left Zhang Zhong Road Essentials multi-speed three (if three are tied Nuisance should), I ask the canal line to the microphone to be buried row over the matter, had left佢words Yanyan After three straight Essentials to row through the first four, just being driven off GOD Essentials think fast drying back to rest it!
Window into the sit position, I like GOD goldfish goldfish bowl into the surface like that, all the way to wait for the food to come forward all the way to serve both beer patrons live, Zhong finished k take both Pakistani and alighting passengers are 8 hanging look scare you, really big pressure, Eating Well comfortably.
Asking him to add water Essentials left three people were added to Zhongwei, the Department of Enterprise GOD waiters obviously buried side Chit Quite busy tight. We should note that the drainage will ask you to Di Qi Ye Li did not, if the sun drains tied together Will not you add water to drink to serve both! Talk back Yeshi, called the left rectangular pizza, a fruit shop sill GOD pizza bread bag taste, smell only if you agree authentic pizza, above Nuisance-what sauce, dry fight fight both. Ajisen Ramen with the same level, pig soup sweet Nuisance-what a surprise, all drains to GOD Ramen Nuisance Xun both, drying my rock, my hate GOD Xun taste. But I Wu Shi spicy, so fewer alternative styles.

“Zhong finished k take both Pakistani and alighting passengers are 8 hanging look scare you”??????

Then, for fun, I took a look at the reviews of King’s Belly, the one western style bar in town with fish & chips and Guinness on tap (and the $138 burger). Here’s some translated review excerpts:

Have you heard of Westerners have salted it?

Well I guess I eat the sun / Yan day eating fried wild and Flow A No heat, so they are all fresh penne cautious.

Colleague sitting opposite me take the mouth, you Do not know baa?

It opened my death experience another food.

Fresh Pasta personal preferences eight mature, more and more tough pharyngeal taste.

Actually, without the translate plugin for Chrome, I wouldn’t be able to navigate essential (to me, anyway) HK websites like DCFever, Car8 or Mac.HK.  For short bits of text, it’s okay enough to navigate around. 

But seriously, shouldn’t Google be doing a better job of it at this point?

11 thoughts on “Why Does Google Translate Do Such a Piss Poor Job On Chinese?”

  1. Google Translate used to be good, but has been crummy for the last 2 years or so. I suspect the cause is either they are pushing you to their paid product (more likely, given the somewhat more correct translation is there before changing to gibberish characters) or the lack the staff to improve their translations.

    In addition, I find lack of Cantonese support in terms of input and translation very annoying. The world seems to think Chinese means Manadrin.

  2. The Japanese to English translation has lately improved but the Thai to English translation is about as piss poor as the Chinese to English.

  3. There are (at least) two different ways of writing Chinese. Sentence construction in Mandarin (and formal Cantonese, as used e.g. in government publications and some news reports) is rather different from the way that people speak Cantonese, and write it informally (e.g. FB posts, blogs, IM). The Google Translate “Chinese” option, of course, works on the former but not the latter. That’s why posts written by most Cantonese speakers come out as gibberish. To make it worse, HK uses a lot of slang that Translate doesn’t understand.

  4. I guess the Open Rice postings are full of colloquialisms and idioms, which don’t translate well. For more formal Chinese, I have to disagree with you – I think that Google does a remarkably good job. When writing up something for a client, I find the Google translation often helps me make sense of the client’s own rough version if the original Chinese text is available.

    Translation between two languages with very different structures is an extremely challenging task. Given an English sentence like one I saw recently, “All the faith he had had had had no effect on the outcome of his life”, how can we expect a machine to disentangle that array of “had”s and make sense of it, especially with no knowledge of the context? The best Google can do, retranslated back, is “All of the letter, he had had had had the result did not affect his life”. But for easier sentences, it is often surprisingly accurate – though no doubt the NSA has something far more sophisticated.

  5. I have studied chinese the last 7 years. I still have a hard time getting the order of the sentences correct. Chinese uses a different logic in how to put together words into meanings, and the same character can mean different things depending on which other characters are placed next to them. There’s the simple things like Time words have to come first (Google should be able to figure that out), but then there’s more complex syntaxes. Changes of state, when in time an activity has been perfomed etc, etc. One thing that I find very difficult to handle, is how many synonymous ways there is of saying the same thing. Thing indicates a richness of the language that doesn’t exist in english, which is still much richer than Swedish e.g. I believe this has to do with the age of the language, and the size of the speaking population. I have had some contact with arabic, which is also considered very difficult, but from a pure logical perspective I believe, chinese is the most difficult for a westerner to speak properly, so Google would have to implement a “Chinese Logic” module to handle it correctly.

    1. All of this explains the technical reasons why what they currently have doesn’t work. It doesn’t explain why they can have translations for languages such as Igbo or Yoruba but haven’t gotten around to Cantonese Chinese yet.

  6. Language… one of humaniity’s greatest achievements… and one of its most complex and sophisticated.
    Exhibit A:
    “Time flies like an arrow
    Fruit flies like a banana”

  7. As other commenters have pointed out, Open Rice HK reviews are a hodgepodge of Standard Written Chinese and colloquial Cantonese, which is not really something Google Translate is geared for.

    Overall, I find that Google Translate handles (standard) Chinese impressively well. It certainly does Chinese better than many other languages, such as Korean.

    I think there’s been an expectation creep going on so that people no longer notice the many things Google Translate gets right but only the nonsense elements in between.

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