back to article US immigration uses Google Translate to scan people's social media for bad posts – Er, don't do that, says everyone else

Google recommends that anyone using its translation technology add a disclaimer that translated text may not be accurate. The US government's Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) nonetheless has been relying on online translation services offered by Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo to read refugees' non-English social …

  1. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Stop

    ....Because Google Translate is obviously the standard by which consistently accurate translation should be judged.

    "Welcome to the United States Mr. Gonzalez, and may I say how sorry we are to hear that your pet rhinoceros died in a tragic staple remover accident."

    1. big_D Silver badge

      I had to quickly translate an user documentation from English to German. I told my boss it would take 3 days, I was give 4 hours and told to put it through GT. I tried bunging it through Google Translate.

      After I stopped rolling on the floor laughing, I went back to my boss and told him 2 - 3 days, unless he wanted it wildly inaccurate.

      It converted phrases like "do not open the case, high voltage inside" to the German equivalent of "open the case, high voltage inside". I thought Google was trying to kill me... The best was "do not open the case, no user serviceable parts inside", which came out as "open the case, nothing inside", not something want to read, when handing out over $3,500 for an industrial terminal!

      I've also had friends send me dissertations, auto-translated from German to English, because they have to post an English version or CVs in English. The translations are generally laughably inaccurate and don't leave a very good impression. I would say, in general, about 10-20% of what Google Translate chucks out is usable - depending on context and subject. That said, it is probably still one of the better online translation services.

      My translations are generally okay, but I did an internship at a translation bureau and they are at a whole other level. Translation is a very difficult thing to do, somebody who is fluent in both languages can run rings around Google Translate, and that is still baby-steps compared to what a professional translator does.

      1. MiguelC Silver badge

        My wife's CV was once translated using GT by a colleague. She apparently became an E.U. "deep cohesion expert", whatever that might be (instead of "cohesion fund program" specialist).

        Although I must concede that GT has been greatly improved over the years and does a lot less stupid mistakes like that one (and it also seams to learn take user corrections into account, although I have no guess about it beeing automated - i.e., machine learning - or done manually)

        1. big_D Silver badge

          With the case I mentioned above, I put in the correct translations as correction in GT and a few months later, it did a better job.

          But it seems to have real problems with formal language. Slang and abbreviations ("isn't" instead of "is not") seem to get translated more reliably.

          1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge
            Headmaster

            Please excuse the pedantry, but that's a contraction, not an abbreviation.

            1. big_D Silver badge

              Correct. My bad.

              1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
                Headmaster

                "My bad."

                Your bad what? :-)

            2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

              Your pedantry is weak. Contractions are abbreviations, both literally (they are shortened forms) and linguistically: the use of "abbreviation" as a term of art in linguistics to include contractions dates from the nineteenth century.

        2. jmch Silver badge

          GT is generally good for single words or short phrases. As long as you have some knowledge of the languages in question and the context, you can fill in the blanks yourself. If you have absolutely zero knowledge of the language you're translating to, don't trust the output blindly!

          In the last year or so I have been using deepL translator, it's much better than GT, being especially good at grabbing some context and adapting the translation. Of course, still far from perfect, but for people at beginner's level in one of the languages, it's a great tool.

          Covering what another poster mentioned above with German technical translation, German constructions around negatives can be very particularly nuanced and it's easy for a beginner (or a machine translation) to mix up what is essentially a *do* with a *don't*

          1. katrinab Silver badge

            I like Reverso, because it gives explanations and examples for its translations.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            I see your German and I raise you my French

            Google does indeed have a habit of turning negatives into positives in languages like German or Czech, but that's a limitation of the machine.

            On the other hand, in French sometimes the only was to know if a sentence has a positive or a negative meaning is to ask the author to pronounce it.

            It can usually, but not always, be inferred from the context but for instance « il y en a plus » means either “there are more” or “there aren't any more [left]”, depending on whether the ‘s‘ is pronounced or silent.

            And in the latter case it could mean either “there aren't any more [left]” or “it rained some of that”.

            1. Andy Non Silver badge

              Re: I see your German and I raise you my French

              I often had difficulty with "plus" when I lived in France, as like you say, it can mean more or no more; and then it rains too ;-) Context was everything, but even then it was sometimes ambiguous.

          3. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            [...] and it's easy for a beginner (or a machine translation) to mix up what is essentially a *do* with a *don't*"

            I use Google translate to handle web page paragraphs in various languages - mostly European. It quite often drops a negative - even when it is absolutely clear in a free-standing word. It also silently drops other words in a sentence - and sometimes puts them in twice. Occasionally the translation is just a jumble of English words making no sense at all.

            It is not a problem for me in the Germanic/Romance languages with which I have some familiarity - otherwise it can get tricky.

      2. Jens Goerke

        My first job in IT was translating manuals and software, so I would read an English paragraph for understanding, then write the same content in German, often badgering colleagues who knew the topic for details so I wouldn't introduce errors.

        I learned quite a bit about image processing, typography, and DTP in general during those times...

        1. big_D Silver badge

          Yes, I was supposed to be a project manager at a previous company, but ended up spending around 60% of my time doing translations. The worst was translating legal documents! The company was too tight to get a professional translator.

          1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

            Odd. In my (limited) experience legal is usually not scrimped upon due to liability aversion. That and accounting.

            Other essential stuff like, IT, competent developers etc... not so much :(

            1. big_D Silver badge
              Facepalm

              You might very well think that, I couldn't possibly comment.

            2. katrinab Silver badge
              Black Helicopters

              I came across some people who scrimped on legal stuff. They are now in prison.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        So far as I can tell GT relies on people submitting better translations than the ones it has come up with, so that GT can “learn”. I wonder if it’s just so bad that people who can spot the errors are just too overwhelmed by the sheer scale of GT’s uselessness to bother sending in corrections.

        Plus there’s plenty of room for japes and giggles. If enough people put in a duff and funny translation, GT will start believing it...

        1. big_D Silver badge

          The problem is, the people who could correct the translations generally don't use Google Translate, because they can the translation in their head.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            I do sometimes use it when I don't like the way I phrase something in translation and I'm trying to think up of different ways it could be worded and I do not have any other target language speakers handy.

            Sometimes it does give some inspiration, other times it's more of a chuckle.

        2. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

          Hmm I always thought it was more likely a poorly vetted Mechanical Turk. Pay pennies (to the translators), get shit translations.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          re. GT relies on people submitting better translations than the ones it has come up with

          essentially, it's one of the tools (crowdfunding), and no serious translator would do that, because they have bills to pay and to do that they have to work. For money, not for the sense of achievement (never mind the feeling you're undermining your own future). So yes, 10 million monkeys will produce some results. It won't be of high class, but how many people want to struggle with Chaucer, or even contemporary literature? BO-RING! Simplify, dumb down, optimize, outsource your brain! Playing 1st person shooter is so much more fun than climbing pesky language constructions.

      4. katrinab Silver badge
        Mushroom

        My favourite, from a translated list of countries

        Bosnia

        Croatia

        Slovenia

        Serbia

        Fruit Salad

        If you go into a cafe in Italy and ask for "macedonia", they will bring a fruit salad to the table. My list of countries was in an Italian document. Google couldn't tell that it was refering to the country rather than the food product, but it would be instantly obvious to any human translator.

        1. _LC_ Bronze badge

          *lol* quite tasty too (Italian here).

        2. FrogsAndChips Silver badge

          Interestingly, "macédoine" in French is a vegetable salad (diced vegetable in mayonnaise sause).

          1. _LC_ Bronze badge

            "Mayonnaise"? Yuck! They seem to add fat to everything...

            In Italy it's diced fruits (usually sweet). They eat it as a dessert, typically in summer (when it's warm).

      5. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        re. quickly translate an user documentation from English to German

        my experience is different (and I hate to say it, because I'm a translator, though the language pair is different). Recently (over last 2 - 3 years) I have noticed that google translations have become much more than just barely tolerable, i.e. I could finally understand the translation without struggling too much. And, more to the point, I have recently tried a different auto-translator, which turned out even better than google. To test it, I used it for a shortish, easy translation job, and, in general, there were very few howlers to require my intervention. I mean, sure, it is not exactly machine translation, it's just a vast, and growing fast, database of human translations with more rather than less perfect matches. I remember that test a few years ago, when they combined a large number of pics of female faces. The result wasn't a Queen of the Universe, but it wasn't fugly either. It was bland, but fairly likeable. And this is the direction of "machine" translation, I think. Bland, but good enough.

        p.s. one of the more popular translation courses at one UK university recently has been something along the lines of Machine Translation post-edition. So, over 30 years or so, the roles of central/peripheral elements have shifted already. from a word editor spell-checker, not long ago (with its own, human-introduced follies) to the human verifier gaining traction. Time to die. Or become a truck driver...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: re. quickly translate an user documentation from English to German

          Concerning your post scriptum, you may want to (re-)read “Dire quasi la stessa cosa (esperienze di traduzione)”, by the late Umberto Eco.

          1. Alistair Silver badge
            Windows

            Re: re. quickly translate an user documentation from English to German

            I'll point out there is not much that Umberto wrote that one should *not* read. Fiction/essays/notes on the back of matchbooks. I rather like most of what he's written, and that which I don't like at least makes me think about the world.

        2. Andy Non Silver badge

          Re: re. quickly translate an user documentation from English to German

          Truck drivers will be obsolete too eventually if all the hype around self driving vehicles is to be believed. We are running out of professions that can't be automated.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: re. quickly translate an user documentation from English to German

            oh dear, I should have used a wink ;)

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: re. quickly translate an user documentation from English to German

            "We are running out of professions that can't be automated."

            Hairdresser?

    2. don't you hate it when you lose your account Bronze badge

      My heart goes out

      To Mr Gonzalez, can we start crowd funding for him :)

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    My hovercraft is full of eels and do you want to come back to my place for bouncy bouncy.

    1. katrinab Silver badge

      Prendi le anguille e ficcare su per l'ano.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        >Prendi le anguille e ficcare su per l'ano.

        Ha azt mondanám, hogy gyönyörű teste van, ellenem tartasz? Én ... már nem vagyok fertőzött.

        1. katrinab Silver badge

          Vaffanculo

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            >Vaffanculo

            Et maintenant pour quelque chose de complètement différent

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            In the interests of Google (non-)Translatability, I would have offered the Roman va pijà 'nder culo.

  3. Dan 55 Silver badge

    Famous for it

    The immigration agency defended its use of machine translation to ProPublica as "a common sense measure to strengthen our vetting procedures"

    ICE being an agency renowned for its common sense. It's in the news most days because of it.

    1. big_D Silver badge

      Re: Famous for it

      I see no sense there, let alone common.

      Translation is tricky, even if you are fluent in both languages. What Google Translate does is woefully inadequate for most purposes and makes someone with a mediocre grip of a foreign language look like a translation genius...

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not saying that they recruit stupid people...

    ..but this comment would get me rejected.

  5. IceC0ld Silver badge

    not to forget the classic that started it

    old story, possibly apocryphal

    translated a sentence from English into Japanese, then taking the translation to another Japanese speaker to ask them to translate it back into English

    SENT ---- Out of sight, out of mind.

    RETURNED ---- Invisible idiot

    and that wasn't even using AI, just good old people power :o)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: apocryphal

      anything going back to pre-internet times is apocryphal (or so my kids say). And, every story that comes from internet times may be fake. It doesn't look good for the post-internet times...

      p.s. it wasn't an "invisible idiot" but a "blind idiot". Also, EN-RU (or the other way round) translation of "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" was, allegedly "vodka is strong, but meat is rotten".

      ah, there it is:

      www.hutchinsweb.me.uk/MTNI-11-1995.pdf

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: apocryphal / follow-up

        1. strangely enough, the most often quoted variant in that article is "invisible", rather than "blind" (and I would swear I read it as "blind", in a book from early 1990s

        2. the article, which comes from those almost-pre-internet times (1995) comes with a quote which everybody should find familiar:

        If nothing else, this should serve as a warning not to believe everything read in newspapers

        (A. Hitler)

    2. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

      Re: not to forget the classic that started it

      Also the (sort of true) story about how "Coca-Cola" when translated into Chinese becomes "Bite the wax tadpole": https://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/bite-the-wax-ta

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: not to forget the classic that started it

      I heard it was

      "The spirit is strong, but the flesh is weak", can't remember all the details, but I think Russian was involved, as it came back as "The vodka is great, but the meat is rancid".

    4. katrinab Silver badge
      Alien

      Re: not to forget the classic that started it

      Out of sight, out of mind -> [Google translate]

      見えない、気にしない -> [Bing translator]

      I can't see, I don't care.

      Going the other way:

      Out of sight, out of mind

      去る者は日々に疎し

      Those who leave are sparse every day

      1. hplasm Silver badge
        Holmes

        Re: not to forget the classic that started it

        "[Bing translator]

        I can't see, I don't care."

        How apt.

        1. katrinab Silver badge

          Re: not to forget the classic that started it

          That's actually not too bad a translation, certainly compared to the other one

          Out of sight - I can't see

          Definitely says the same thing

          Out of mind - I don't care

          Describes the same state of being, but different intent.

          But overall, the meaning is much the same.

  6. veti Silver badge

    Can we please keep the lynchmobs quiet?

    The statement "USCIS follows up with human translators as needed", if true - and no reason has been presented to doubt it - makes it clear what's going on here. Use Google Translate, in conjunction with Search tools, to scan for words/phrases that might suggest an issue exists, then use that information as a filter to determine which posts/feeds get attention from a human translator.

    Seems eminently sensible to me.

    Now, granted, I don't know if that's what the story means. But, unlike other interpretations, it's 100% consistent with all the stated facts.

    1. eldakka Silver badge

      Re: Can we please keep the lynchmobs quiet?

      What you are saying also crossed my mind, and I hope that is true.

      However, there is a downside to this. Only posts who's machine-translation is flagged as concerning would get referred.

      But this means they will miss actual terrorists who's translation was incorrect, but in the 'this isn't a problem' direction.

      That is, this system means a translation something like the following would be referred:

      native text: I want to go and sledge the All Blacks at tonights game.

      machine translation: I want to beat up all the blacks at tonights game.

      Hopefully the referral would give an accurate translation of a common, everyday social activity - going to a football game and shouting abuse at the opposing teams players.

      native text: I want to bomb the blacks at tonights game in Durbin.

      machine translation: I want to abuse the All Blacks in Durbin.

      The translation seems to imply that the post is talking about the afprementioned acceptable social sporting activity, this will not get referred for an accurate translation of it potentially being an actual terrorist activity.

      Therefore I conclude that the process is flawed, and they are just as likely to let in 'bad actors' as they are to incorrectly detain 'good actors' while awaiting an accurate translation.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Can we please keep the lynchmobs quiet?

        And it doesn't solve the issue with 'clean skins'.

    2. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: Can we please keep the lynchmobs quiet?

      If Google Translate did something like get confused over "not" from French to English (which it does), how would they even know to follow up?

      1. Karl Vegar

        Re: Can we please keep the lynchmobs quiet?

        Oh, be fair.

        A lot of the French get confused by this when attempting to translate from French to English as well.

        1. big_D Silver badge

          Re: Can we please keep the lynchmobs quiet?

          The point being that you should never use goofed up translations to make a decision.

      2. big_D Silver badge

        Re: Can we please keep the lynchmobs quiet?

        Yes, Google Translate has real problems translating from formal English. For the longest time it didn't know what to do with the word "not" and just dropped it out of the translation completely!

        Do not enter the cage, dangerous animals -> Enter the cage, dangerous animals.

    3. Nick Kew Silver badge

      Re: Can we please keep the lynchmobs quiet?

      The story cited of Ismail Ajjawi might suggest there's a higher and more problematic hurdle somewhere in the system. Although there's no indication (other than the fact of it featuring in this article) that translation issues played any role in that story.

      All your security are belong to us.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Can we please keep the lynchmobs quiet?

        >Ismail Ajjawi might suggest there's a higher and more problematic hurdle somewhere in the system.

        That his name begins with 'Al' ?

  7. Warm Braw Silver badge

    Both statements can't be true

    That's the kind of seditious talk that gets people barred at the border.

    1. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

      Re: Both statements can't be true

      Doublethink is doubleplusgood!

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    add a disclaimer that translated text may not be accurate

    US immigration: add a disclaimer that translated text may not be accurate

    US immigration translation: add a disclaimer that translated text may be accurate

    1. OFSO

      Re: add a disclaimer that translated text may not be accurate

      Although speaking and comprehending the languages, for written work I regularly use Google translate between English, Catalan, French and German. The first three are no problem: its the German with its weird grammatical structure which doesn't work well. Putting the verb at the end was not a good idead.

      " Dear friends and relatives I must today announce to everyone to our great sorrow that after a long illness and despite much suffering, our grandfather has himself shot.....

      1. _LC_ Bronze badge

        Re: add a disclaimer that translated text may not be accurate

        Somewhat better for your purposes, but still far from being anywhere near good translating:

        https://www.deepl.com/translator

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: still far from being anywhere near good translating

          well, I say it IS very near good translating (and I'm serious). But, like your claim, mine is based on a very limited number of translations, although I've already switched to their engine for when I want to read what I can't understand.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: add a disclaimer that translated text may not be accurate

        "Putting the verb at the end was not a good idead"

        A supposedly true story from the EEC (EU) about a real time human translator.

        A German speaker was being very voluble - then the English translation went silent. Suddenly there was an exasperated - "the verb, damn you man, the verb!"

    2. katrinab Silver badge

      Re: add a disclaimer that translated text may not be accurate

      "Translation may be accurate" reflects the reality of Google Translate a bit better as it implies it probably won't be.

  9. Headley_Grange Silver badge

    jūs nevarējāt izdrāzt to visu

    Mar a tha e ag ràdh anns an tiotal

  10. James 51 Silver badge
    FAIL

    'a common sense stupidity measure to strengthen our vetting procedures paranoia,'

    ftft

  11. Joe Harrison

    In other news...

    The reason AmanfromMars doesn't post here so much is that he's on secondment helping the US Govt translate things. If he can't do it, nobody can.

  12. James 51 Silver badge

    So, make all your posts in high elvish then?

    1. Crisp Silver badge

      Translate them into Betacrypt3

      That should do the trick.

  13. Stuart Castle

    I think the problem is threefold.

    1) People, when they are young, can do things they (and other people) end up regretting. We've seen it with James Gunn. We've seen it with a dozen other famous people when they have to apologise because 15 years ago, they made a joke others now find massively offensive.

    2) Machine translation is rather basic, and often wrong. I'm no translator, but I was listening to someone talk about the problems of machine translation while talking about a kickstarter for a little bluetooth headset that connects to an app on your phone that translates spoken words. He said the problem is that while machines can translate the actual words easily, different languages have different syntaxes, so a sentence might have a totally different meaning from that intended when it is translated (sometimes with potentially dangerous consequences, as noted above) even if all the words are correct. Certain words in certain languages also change meaning depending on context. He was talking about translating the spoken word, but the comments apply to the written word as well. A human translator will often pick this sort of thing up, and will adjust their translation to deal with it.

    3) People are just going to learn to avoid posting radical things on social media, or create false accounts with generic, non offensive postings to get past any checks.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      4 anyone who speaks any giddam foreign took language is probably. A goddam foreign gook who can't be trusted. Or if they are an american who learned foreign they are obviously a traitor.

      This was actually the reason for the founding of a lot of AI research in the 59s. They needed to translate a lot of Russian, but anyone who knew Russian must be a communist.

      1. AK565

        What's scary is that there're actually quite a few people who actually do think this way.

        OTOH, there're also quite a few people who think that learning (or failing to learn) a language is something that randomly happens to people. I see this often in 'heritage language' situations. Those who failed to learn it more often than not refuse to acknowledge that family members who did learn it actually put any effort into it. Yes, I'm aware that makes no sense, but there you go.

    2. jmch Silver badge

      "Certain words in certain languages also change meaning depending on context"

      One of my favourite examples...

      "bum a fag"

      UK English - fairly common and completely innocuous expression meaning "borrow a cigarette"

      US English - highly offensive for both sexually graphic content and a homophobic slur

      1. _LC_ Bronze badge

        "fanny" - even worse ;-)

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          I used to say "democratically elected competent leader" but meanings seemed to have converged on that

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Humans aren't necessarily any better

    The US army had a similar problem in Iraq.

    Written arabic is one language (=the Quran) but spoken Arabic is as different as Spanish/Italian/Portuguese.

    Obviously you can't hire Iraqi translators (security), so you hire from friendly Arab countries = Egypt/Jordan/Lebanon

    A journalist was asking one Egyptian interpreter how he was doing interrogating Al-Qaeda prisoners - I can't understand a word, but you learn what they - the US army guys - want to hear.

    Ironically the US army has some of the best language schools in the world, specialising in places that the US might have as enemies years in advance. But they are so prestigious that no graduate of them is going to be anywhere near the front line.

  15. fredesmite Bronze badge

    You would have to be a complete MORON

    And retarded to use your own ID on any social media site.

  16. Tempest
    Unhappy

    Police in Cambodia (Kampuchea), Laos, Thailand And VietNam All Use Google Translate ...

    when dealing with Foreigners.

    In VietNam laptops have been issued for this purpose whilst the Cong An's (Plod) other business happily continues on ancient desktops running XP!

  17. Dedobot

    The biggest challenge to any translator - maned or not will be the titles of El Reg articles :-)

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