So, Google’s Fall lineup for their Pixel phones just dropped.
I use a Pixel 3 myself and I quite like it. I’m not in the market for a new phone right now but I will probably stick with the brand in the future. But for some reason every new update comes with a segment on how Google Translate will improve your phone experience, and it’s always quite frustrating. Google translate is bad, and it’s difficult to explain just how bad it is to someone who only speaks one language, or who only has experience with one language of a source/target pair — for example, if I see an English or Japanese sentence that was produced with Translate, I can identify it immediately, but I’d have no clue whatsoever when looking at a Thai or French sentence.
Sometimes I hear people say “Google Translate is a bad fit for Japanese, but it’s great at other languages”. I can’t personally refute this, so fortunately at times like this I can refer to this excellent article that shows how Translate isn’t necessarily better at dealing with other languages, it’s just that the problems it has are different problems.
The thing that constantly baffles me is that surely Google themselves would know that Translate isn’t a product that deserves first billing, right? They’re a global company that offers support in many many languages, and I can tell you for a fact that they don’t use Translate themselves when localizing their services for their target regions. It’s inconceivable that none of the higher-ups at Google have ever bothered to check to make sure that it actually works before pushing it so hard.
Well, today (thanks to the video above), it became abundantly obvious that they do know it’s broken, and it’s all thanks to Marie Kondo.
The “live translation” section didn’t exactly set us off to a strong start. The presenter types an English sentence into his phone and — as if by magic! — a Japanese text message is sent to his sister-in-law. Whatever “the greatest and most accurate version of Translate ever” is supposed to mean, the result is…quite bad.
There’s a lot I could nitpick, but the biggest offender is just the first word; 確かに does mean “sure”, but only in the sense of the word that means “certainty” or “reliable information”. The Japanese sentence comes across more as “Indeed, now that you mention it it is true that I can finally talk to you about that”. The tone is completely off and the meaning has changed dramatically. In the Japanese/English language-learning discord server I frequent, we occasionally get users who try to pass themselves off as native Japanese speakers by using gboard’s automatic translation function, and it’s always a hilarious failure. It’s pretty silly to show off this exact function as if it’s brand new feature only available in the latest model, but that’s neither here nor there — the point is that this half-baked feature is once again being touted as a a major selling point, one that will help people connect and learn about each other across cultural and linguistic boundaries.
At the end of the video, Product Manager Shenaz Zack sits down to talk to Marie Kondo, using the new “interpreter mode“, and I was instantly curious to see how they would translate her signature phrase. ときめく is a mimetic word that describes that pleasant little squeeze in your chest — when somebody calls your name, for example, or when you see something that you have an emotional attachment to. In English, the KonMari concept of ときめく is called “spark joy” — not a straightforward translation at all. Would Translate be familiar with this concept and incorporate it into the result?
Zack holds up her phone and speaks into it:
I love seeing what sparks joy in other people’s lives; what sparks joy for Marie?
Imagine my disappointment when the footage cut immediately to the response instead of letting us hear the translated result! Well, thanks to the previous example, we already know that this “latest and greatest” is just Translate under the hood. Let’s check it out.
If you type “spark joy” into Translate, the Japanese result is スパークジョイ — literally just a phonetic re-rendering of the English words. Flipping the languages and inputting ときめく gives “crush” (I suppose if you have a crush on someone, your heart might ときめく when you they catch your eye, but this is a very weak result). Not looking so good, but what if we feed in the entire sentence?
This is…so bad. Just as I suspected, “spark joy” is totally lost in translation. Translate comes up with 喜びをもたらす, which is a totally valid phrase that means “to bring about happiness”. The thing is…it doesn’t have anything to do with the KonMari method. It would be like interviewing the Rolling Stones and calling them “the Tumbling Boulders” instead. I’ve no doubt that Kondo handled the gaffe graciously, but it would have been a pretty bad look.
So why was this line the only one cut from the conversation? Could it simply be that it went on too long and made the exchange awkward? Probably not, considering how awkward the rest of it is. Or could it be that there was an embarrassing halt after Google Assistant read out the resulting sentence — a subtle feeling of unease as it failed to use the respectful name-ender さん in an otherwise polite sentence (and mispronounced her name to boot); a moment of confusion over the choice of もの (concrete) vs the more appropriate こと (intangible) for “things which make you happy”; a stall as Kondo’s trademark phrase is mangled beyond recognition.
It’s beyond where I can give them the benefit of the doubt at this point; Google knows that Translate is bad. It would really be nice if they’d act on that knowledge instead of keeping up the farce.