Did you see the recent BMJ article on the accuracy of Google Translate for medical communication?
The study looked at ten medical statements chosen by the authors, and translated them into 26 European, Asian and African languages using Google Translate. The phrases were then translated back into English by native speakers, to evaluate the translations for accuracy. Overall, 57.7% of the translations were found to be correct, while 42.3% were wrong. The translations into Western European languages were most accurate, at 74%, while translations into African languages were only correct in 45% of cases.
I had a look at the phrases evaluated to see how Google would translate them into German. The ten phrases were:
1. Your wife is stable
2. Your husband had a cardiac arrest
3. Your husband had a heart attack
4. Your wife needs to be ventilated
5. Your child’s condition is life threatening
6. Your child has been fitting
7. Your child will be born premature
8. Your husband has the opportunity to donate his organs
9. We will need your consent for operation
10. Did he have high fever at home?
Overall, the phrases that were the most difficult for Google to translate accurately into any language were:
• Your wife needs to be ventilated
• Your child has been fitting
Predictably, the German translations of these phrases offered by Google were incorrect:
• Your wife needs to be ventilated – Ihre Frau muss belüftet sein (your wife needs to be aired)
• Your child has been fitting – Ihr Kind war pass (your child was the right size – although the German in this sentence is incorrect and fairly meaningless)
Google also struggled with the German translation of a third phrase, translating “We will need your consent for operation” as “Wir werden Ihre Zustimmung für den Betrieb benötigen” (we will need your consent to run the business/machinery).
Google did a reasonable job of translating the other seven out of ten phrases, so the overall comprehensibility for translation into German was around 70%. This is similar to the translations into Western European languages evaluated in the study, which were correct in 74% of cases.
So, what conclusions can be drawn about the suitability of Google Translate in medical situations? Although usually accurate enough to be understandable, some of the translations offered by Google ranged from incomprehensible to hair-raising. Unintended ambiguity in the original phrases caused serious errors in translation – which would almost be humorous in a different context. While Google Translate is an extremely useful tool, it looks like there is still a need for (human) medical translators and interpreters.
By Jayne Fox BSc MITI, German-English medical translator.
Please note that I do not have a commercial relationship with any of the organisations mentioned above.