Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Google Translate blows "Happy New Year"

With the some students staying with us for New Year's Eve, I wanted to make sure I knew how to say "Happy New Year" in French. I was pretty sure it was simply Bonne Année, but went to Google Translate to be sure, which inexplicably gave me the mouthful, heureuse nouvelle année! Yes, that's the literal translation, but not what French people typically say to each other on January 1 (or, as they know it, 1 January).

I know Google Translate isn't perfect, but this one surprised me, because Google uses a statistically-based algorithm, searching though its massive online database for all occurrences of the phrase to be translated, then choosing the translation (done by humans) that comes up the most frequently. Thus I would think "happy new year" would be an easy one, being such a common phrase.  Not so. 

This glitch is reminiscent of the early days of statistically-based machine translation, when researchers from IBM were using the Hansard -- the minutes of the Canadian Parliament, recorded in both English and French -- as their database. In the early tests, there were surprised to find the word "hear" translated by the software into "bravo." What gives? Well, it turns out, when a member says something that others approve of, they call, "hear, hear!" in that British fashion. The French-speaking members, meanwhile, say, "bravo, bravo,"  both responses duly recorded in the minutes. Thus the databases thought the most likely translation for "hear" was "bravo" until it was "taught" that one "hear" alone means one things, but "hear, hear" something else.

Well, no "bravo!" for Google. But Bonne Année, everyone!


  1. Bonne Annee to you and the whole family from the Lone Star State! P and J


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