Why Online Translators Fail
Oh, woe is me... When you plug whole sentences, paragraphs, or (I shudder just thinking about it) documents into an online translator, what comes out in the other language is usually the equivalent of Gobbledygook. It makes no sense and uses way out there vocabulary that a normal person would never actually use (and my students always wondered how I immediately knew when they had cheated and used an online translator to produce their English homework).
Here's a big reason for why online translators do NOT work for anything larger than single word translations: phrasal verbs. In English, we like to tack prepositions onto the ends of our verbs. These prepositions change the whole meaning of the verb and are really part of the verb itself. Take the verb stand for instance. Form a picture in your mind of what it means to stand. Now think of the different meanings that are created by attaching different prepositions onto stand: stand up, stand out, stand by, stand down, stand for, stand in (just to name some that come to the top of my mind).
So, aside from the fact that an online dictionary will play Russian roulette with any synonyms of a word, be they commonly used or not, these phantom online translators simply don't know what to do when two words function with one meaning. Case in point, when I type the (seemingly very simple) sentence She stood by her decision into Google Translate and ask it to translate that sentence to Spanish, this is what comes out: Se puso de pie por su decisión. The Spanish version says that she literally stood (got on her feet) by her decision. I am frightened to think about the result had I plugged a whole paragraph or document into this translator.
The Right Way to Use an Online Translator
My first rule for online translators is to never ever translate more than single words if you can get around it. They just aren't built for translating more than that (at least not well).
My second rule is to always always evaluate the translation for the context that you need. Online translators don't always choose the most appropriate translation for the context, and students need to be aware of that so that they can evaluate what they get from an online translator and respond accordingly. Google Translate provides a list of related words underneath the primary translation, for example. It is important for students to be aware of these so that they can choose the best word for the context that they are working with. This involves students in some meta-linguistic study and also some higher order thinking as they evaluate possible translations.
Online translators are useful for providing key words in the native language, or finding an on-the-fly translation for a word that just can't be explained very well in a short time. This can be an important support for students who are in the beginning stages of learning English. It can also help those students who have more English proficiency to start thinking about how they use words in both their native language and in English.
My Favorite Online Translators
Google Translate has about 80 different languages that can be translated. I don't think I've ever had an ESL student whose language wasn't in Google Translate. It provides voice pronunciation for many languages, and for languages that do not use the Roman alphabet it provides a phonetic transcription. And it lists related words with part of speech under the primary transcription.
Word Reference has fewer languages than Google Translate (only 15). But a very nice thing about Word Reference is that it provides additional translations for compound forms and common collocations (like phrasal verbs). If you still can't find the correct sense of the word as a translation, there are discussion forums where you may post your question and users from all over the world can help you with the best translation to suit your needs. You can also search the discussion forums to see if your question has ever come up before.
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