Mind over machine: Why translation software can’t truly understand

I think, therefore I am. Test that saying on your machine translator...

Is the pig in the pen? You might find that a machine translator says it’s in the ballpoint…

Machine translation programs are constantly improving, but they cannot replace the human brain and its capacity to understand the context. Google’s translation into French passed a simple test, but fell down with “The ink is in the pen”, translating it as “The ink is in the enclosure.”

One of our competitors proudly states that it uses only human translators – then offers a free, instant translation service provided by… a software program. There is a place for software-based translation, but it’s not at

At this stage of evolution, only humans seem capable of knowing that no “laundry coins” are involved in a “coin-operated laundry”, or that “grounds” for walking on are not the same as those used in a court case. Software struggles with such subtleties, as shown by the following examples from a website for a backpacker hostel, in Spanish, French and German.

The hostel offers a “self-catering kitchen”, which in Spanish came out as “cocina del abastecimiento del uno mismo”. We used the same program to translate this back into English and were amused to learn that “it cooks of the supplying of the one same one”.

The hostel’s natural wonders include “fur seals and spotted shags in their natural environment” which in Spanish apparently is “los sellos de la piel y las pelusas manchadas en su ambiente natural”. A back-translation into English by the same software gives us an even more surreal vision: “the seals of the stained skin and fluffs in its natural atmosphere”. No doubt backpackers are flocking to the area…

The more philosophically-minded French rambler is offered a “stroll in the beautiful gardens and grounds” (flâner en beaux jardins et raisons) or back-translated by software into English as “To stroll in beautiful gardens and reasons”.

Germans are offered accommodation in a “Non-smoking hostel” or “Nicht rauchender Hostel”. While the English can deal with this literal absurdity, a German can only interpret it as a hostel that is not on fire.

Hopefully, French backpackers will keep sufficiently warm without setting fire to the wood burners (brûleur en bois), or “burners made out of wood”. Elsewhere, Spanish trekkers are advised to be careful when changing their money for the “Laundry, Coin Operated” (la moneda del lavadero funcionó) or, as our machine would have it back into English, “the currency of the laundry worked”!

Finally, pity the burghers of Devesset, in France’s beautiful Ardeche region. Before they wisely scrapped the machine translation into “English” and reverted to French, the town’s tourism website could surely only have been translated by an unsupervised computer:

“Welcome with Devesset

Come to refresh itself close to a lake from mountain with Devesset! You will know the large breath of the pure feelings as a practitioner of the water sports varied on a surface of 51 hectares: veil, pedal boat, board with veil, centre-board, plays watery…

Devesset is located at the south-east of France on the top-plates of north-Ardeche at 1100 m of altitude, the buttresses of the mountain ardechoise. The village is with ten kilometres of Haute-Loire on the watershed the Atlantic-Meditérrannée; it is included/understood in the geographical entry of Haut-Vivarais and that of the Vivarais-Lignon plate.

Leisures, Animations

The leisures with Devesset are concentrated on the site of the lake: tennis, hiring VTT, pedal boats, course of health around the lake, supervised bathe, terrestrial and watery adventure playgrounds, refreshment bar and rapid restoration in the arranged barn of an old picturesque farm.

Small note to the attention of the curious traveller

In Devesset, the traveller will let himself carry by the strange magic of the top-plates where it will be able to be devoted to the sporting joys most various: ski, functioning with the large air activities nautical on a splendid lake of mountain…”

We rest our case.

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