Google Translate fail

Machine translation of Chinese has moved forward a lot since I first tried it out about ten years ago.  Now it’s good enough that I can usually get the gist of a text, if not all the details.  I use Google Translate on a regular basis because my flashcard program has a plugin that automatically fills in my flashcards after I type in the characters.  If the Chinese word or phrase isn’t found in the dictionary, it fills in the English using Google Translate instead.  Nonetheless, it has its moments of, shall we say, unhelpfulness.

For example:

I typed in 大片儿 (dàpiānr).  My book tells me this means ‘big budget films.’  Google Translate gave me ‘large tracts of children.’

In fact, for the truly curious, this isn’t so unreasonable.  大 means big. 片 means, among other things, a piece of–as in a piece of land.  (It also means film.) It has a different pronunciation when it means that, but you can’t tell that from the writing.  And 儿 does mean child.  What Google Translate failed to recognize is that 儿 isn’t used here for meaning–it’s used to tells learners like me that this word is actually pronounced with an ‘r’ sound at the end.

My impression is that the 儿 isn’t typically written in actual Chinese, so perhaps it’s not such a big flaw, but it does make for some bizarre translations from time to time.  On the other hand, a person would immediately recognize the fact that this is highly unlikely to be the correct translation.

2 Responses to “Google Translate fail”

  1. 1 Dave May 13, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Having learnt Traditional Chinese in Taiwan I’ve never had the experience of getting a mis-translation because of adding 兒 to the end of a word – it’s just not used over here in speech or text.
    It was funny when we first started learning, as the textbook would have a word like 大片兒, and we all would full pronounce 兒 without joining it to the end of 片, it sounds really funny. In the end the teacher just gave up and we ommited the 兒 from the on.
    It also seems like it makes words harder to distinguish when listening.

    • 2 Katie Tang May 14, 2010 at 1:23 pm

      It’s can be pretty confusing for listening sometimes, others not so bad. When the final is -a or -an, like 花儿 or 餐馆儿, it’s not so bad for listening or pronunciation. I have a hard time saying a final -ao plus 儿, but the pronunciation of the vowel is still pretty clear. It’s when the vowel gets mutilated too that it can get to be confusing, for me anyway. I swear the nice people over at Beijing Sounds have a nice list of what different finals sound like once they’ve been 儿’ed, but I can’t seem to find it at the moment.

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