Google Translate is now better at Japanese-to-English, but still not good enough to make me unemployed

This year, Google made changes to its Translate service that are aimed at making translations more accurate. They use a “Recurring Neural Network” method that “considers the entire input sentence [instead of just parts of the sentence] as a unit for translation.” I have to admit I gulped at the news – is this what will finally make my role as a Japanese-English translator redundant?

The New York Times fanned my fear with this glowing article that led with the claim that Google Translate is now a better translator than Haruki Murakami (at the very least, he did a great job translating The Giving Tree, in my humble opinion).

That prompted me to test out the site. Here are some examples of Japanese-to-English translation that I pulled:

News articles I would say are unacceptably inaccurate:

This one (about discussions over who should pay for the 2020 Olympics) gets a minister’s name and gender wrong, can’t seem to recognize that 都 means the Tokyo prefectural government and 国 means the Japanese national government, and in general is just incoherent for most of it.

A man is suspected of cutting a police officer in the neck with a knife. But according to Google Translate, he is first “suspected of killing himself” and then “he cut off the police officer ’s neck with a knife…  The policeman was injured.”

It seems to do best with press releases - these actually seem to give a pretty accurate and readable translation:

... But not so well when it comes to long-winded technical financial announcements: 

The best I can say for it is that, unlike the earlier version, every sentence appears to be grammatically correct and make logical sense. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to be able to translate things in context or keep track of omitted subjects.

All in all, I can say it looks more useful for Japanese-to-English, especially if it is used with “made-to-translate” Japanese. I might even use it myself as a starting point for some documents (and that is definitely not something I would say about the old version!) But for now at least I am happy to report it isn’t yet ready to force me to start a new career, which is good because I have no idea what I would even do…

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