How to accurately translate languages using Cortana

October 20, 2015

2:00 pm

Users of Microsoft’s new operating system Windows 10 can now translate into 38 different languages using the personal digital assistant Cortana. It could previously assist with some translation duties but the new feature is more comprehensive and offers more languages than ever before including Swedish, Korean, Japanese and, most unusually, Klingon.

As with most digital translators, there are problems. Digital translators are technical machines incapable of relating to you or your audience on a human level. Often they cannot comprehend context, culture or regional dialects and therefore leave you with an inaccurate translation.

A study evaluated the accuracy of Google Translate by translating 10 medical statements into 26 different languages, a total of 260 translated phrases. Of the 260 phrases, Google Translate accurately interpreted the meaning of 57.7% and mistranslated 42.3%.

Accuracy requires a human touch so in scenarios where the translation needs to be perfect, for instance business translation, it is worth hiring language experts to assist. Companies like London Translations state the importance of incorporating computer programs into translation for efficiency, but by no means relying on them to do all of the work. However, if used correctly, digital translators can be very useful tools. Here are some tips on how to avoid inaccuracy when using Cortana’s translation service.

Avoid contextual inaccuracy by translating individual words or phrases

Digital translators are excellent for rough-draft translations but using them to translate a big chunk of writing is rarely a good idea. This is because they struggle to understand the context of the phrase you are translating.

Little context is needed for the translation of phrases such as “the station” or “I am late”, so digital translators make for excellent phrasebooks. But put the phrases into a sentence and context is immediately needed. Take the following Spanish translation example from Microsoft’s translator:

Input sentence: I will meet you at the station but I am running late

Spanish translation: Encontraremos en la estación pero estoy retrasado

Translated back: We will in the season but I am delayed

Other contextual issues can arise when there are two words for something in one language but only one in another. For example there are two verbs for ‘to love’ in Spanish. ‘Amar’ is used to describe inseparable love between two people while ‘querer’ denotes a more friend-based love. Without context, digital translators may struggle to differentiate between the two.

Reduce cultural inaccuracy by avoiding idioms and slang terms

You must take culture into account to get an accurate translation of any text. It is important to avoid the use of idioms that other languages do not understand. For instance the French phrase “quand les poules auront des dents” literally translates into English as “when hens have teeth”. What digital translators cannot tell you is that it is the French version of the English idiom “when pigs fly”. The Dutch version is “when cows dance on ice” and Russian version “when a lobster whistles on top of a mountain”. To avoid confusion it is wise to avoid translating English idioms into foreign languages and vice versa.

There are also other cultural differences that can hinder translation. Every language has words that are well understood among native speakers but don’t translate well. In English, a Latte is a type of coffee but “latte” is the word for milk in Italian. Microsoft translator doesn’t understand this which could leave you with a translation similar to this:

Input sentence: One latte with sugar please

Italian translation: Un latte con lo zucchero per favore

Translated back: A milk with sugar please

This example demonstrates why it is good practice to translate nouns that are more universally recognized, for instance in this case “coffee” would have been a better noun to translate rather than the particular style of coffee.

Microsoft is likely to keep developing its translator to improve on its accuracy. One of the best features of Microsoft Translate on Cortana is that for unfamiliar words or phrases the app will launch a web search to help find the definition.

This will help to interpret the more ambiguous terms such as idioms and cultural references. For now, stick to translating individual words and simple sentence structures in order to avoid any foreign language faux pas.

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Simon Davies is a London based freelance writer with an interest in startup culture, issues and solutions.

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