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How do I know if a text has been translated with Google translate?

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How do I know if a text has been translated with Google translate?
How do I know if a text has been translated with Google translate?

How do I know if a text has been translated with Google translate? If this is something you encounter often (maybe you’re a language teacher so you work with only one combination of languages?) you should do some “research” with Google Translate to see how it works. You’ll start to see patterns pretty quickly.

It helps to have a lot of text to be sure, and even if you get suspicious you can’t be positive a text is from Google Translate, but you can start watching for future signs or try to intervene. (I’m writing this assuming you’re a teacher, or at least that ideas like this are relevant to you. The situation may vary of course.)

The main giveaway is based on what Google Translate is good at and what it is bad at, compared to what the average language learner is good at and bad at. First, if you find anything that hasn’t yet been taught to the student, then that obviously comes from an outside source— don’t assume that something that is “too good” is from Google Translate (it’s more likely from a friend or relative helping them). Instead, look for mixed results that aren’t necessarily better or worse than what you would see form a student, but different!

Google Translate is very good with vocabulary, and students are not. On the other hand, if a student learns a new word outside of class, they will probably use it carefully. Google Translate will not. So if you ever see lots of advanced vocabulary mixed into confusing sentences, especially in ways that don’t make sense, that’s a big sign. Also compare in-class writing to homework: even if it’s not Google Translate, they might be overusing a dictionary or other resource.

Google Translate is reasonably good at grammar but will probably include some patterns not familiar to the student (it’s just statistical results based on what is common). If you see unfamiliar structures used badly, they’re probably either reading ahead in the textbook and guessing, or using Google Translate. Students won’t be able to make complex sentences on their own (or would write something you could guess they would produce from what they current know) but with Google Translate they will often type in normal complexity sentences and not know what comes out is actually much more advanced than what they know (and probably has errors too).

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Google Translate is worst at word-forms (more technically morphology) including prefixes and suffixes. If you see a lot of words thrown together in order but without the right endings (in a way that is different from the average learner) then this may be an indication of using Google Translate. To be clear, this will vary greatly by language (and language pair!), so it is important to get a sense of this by trying it out yourself with example sentences. The rest doesn’t require much testing to figure out what it would look like, but this does, so try it out. (If you’re a trained linguist or you’ve studied lots of languages and used Google Translate with many languages, you’ll get some intuition about these things, but short of that you need to look at some examples to get a sense of it.) This will work better for some languages than others. Google Translate is generally terrible for translating into Swahili (very complex words) but pretty good for Chinese (almost all words are just one syllable, no changing endings). So it’s easier to tell with Swahili than Chinese.

Something important to remember is that Google Translate is often very good for translating from a language you don’t understand into your language, because you can figure out the overall meaning and then proofread the messy results to get a polished translation. The other way around, though, when you translate into a language that you don’t know well, you don’t have a strong ability to proofread so you have to just blindly trust the output. That’s where you get very artificial sounding sentences, and that’s what a speaker of the language should be able to detect, at least with some practice, and some experience with Google translations.

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How do I know if a text has been translated with Google translate

In fact, the easiest test of all is just to ask someone to explain what they wrote. An average student will respond like an average student and work through what they wrote. An excellent student will have complex answers for why they chose the advanced forms they did (that were not taught in class). But a cheating student will have no idea how to explain what’s going on in the sentences they produced. Many will admit to what they did, while others will try to excuse it away. In general, there’s no reason to expect a student to be confused by their own writing. If they are, something is wrong! (I will add that sometimes when I’m writing something at home I do it in a complex way and look up additional vocabulary and then craft what is more like a puzzle of words than a natural sentence based on my existing knowledge. If I was asked to translate it word for word I would sometimes fail. But I could also explain this articulately, including at least some of my word or grammar choices. I assume I’d come across as believable. Cheaters probably wouldn’t.)

I wouldn’t think it would be fair to punish a student for cheating without interviewing them about it like I outlined above. It reminds me of a girl in my Spanish class in high school who was accused of cheating. The teacher didn’t give her any chance to defend herself, just told her that her work was too good and gave her a zero on the assignment. Later she told me that her grandmother had helped her with some of it (it was a cultural poster, and it was obviously important to her to do well). Certainly that’s problematic but it wasn’t just “cheating” in a simple sense. It was actually more work than many of us had put into the project. And I’ve seen much worse, including using Google Translate, that was never caught. But asking the student about it seems like a very reasonable idea.

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As for actually testing Google Translate with the sentence in question, you should know:

How do I know if a text has been translated with Google translate?
How do I know if a text has been translated with Google translate?
  1. Back-and-forth translation is not reliable (it’s not a one-to-one system). So don’t try to un-translate something to check what the input was.
  2. Google Translate is constantly updated with new statistical data, so one day to the next you may get slightly different translations. You may get slightly different translations even if you put in a little more context (one more sentence in a paragraph?).

So the only reliable way to ‘check’ this is to compare it to other examples from Google Translate (that will share many linguistic features). I’d say for a reliable assessment you’d need a least a 5-sentence paragraph or so. In a long text like an essay it would be really obvious.

How do I know if a text has been translated with Google translate

Finally, let me just add: Google Translate is not a bad thing. And if you tell your students that it is bad, they probably will just ignore you and continue to use it. It would be much better to explain what it is good for (I’ve discussed this in other answers here too). Mostly it is good for acting as a quick dictionary and giving someone something (very rough) to compare to. It is never good as a way to translate into an unfamiliar language, but it can actually be great to translate out of an unfamiliar language. If you could demonstrate to your class just how easily you can tell that something is from Google Translate, and what some of its weaknesses are, they would understand that it is just a tool, and not one that should replace them studying.

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