The Trouble With Translators

I have a confession, something that might shock the other language teachers out there: I like online translators, especially Google. I think that (when used correctly) they can be great tools. They can help students to understand difficult passages and they can help them to double check their own work, among a host of other useful purposes.

But as much as I like them, I do have an issue. It’s not that I think that they will steal my job as a language educator and it’s not that I am afraid that the students will “cheat” by using a translator and try to pass off the work as their own. The biggest issue that I have with translators is that I don’t have any desire to know what a translator knows. On the other hand, I NEED to know what my students know.

Some context:

My Middle School students are currently working on final exam projects. The project: write a story in Spanish. Narrate story over an original animation created by you and a partner in class. Record and edit on iPad. Present completed video to class. Get good grade (because it has been labored over and corrected as much as is needed to be as near to perfect as possible).

The students work on rough drafts in class and turn them in when they are finished. Then, we can work together to correct them while everyone else works on the art and/or filming of their projects. The idea was beautiful: I will have a document of what the kids can actually do on their own in the rough draft and I will have a corrected copy for them to present and save for posterity.

But…There has been a problem. Several of my students are chronic overachievers. Normally, this is a good trait for them to have. They are discerning in their work and they don’t turn in work that is in any way incomplete or imperfect. They turn in quality work each time. They also are VERY nervous about turning in work that is not perfect. This leads them to do something that can be considered cheating in most professional language teaching circles: writing in English and translating with an online translator.

This is academically dishonest, true, but more than anything else, it is frustrating. It goes completely against what I have been trying to build all year. I have spent the year telling the kids that they will write in Spanish like elementary school students and that there will be errors and the text will be choppy and unsophisticated. And I have spent the year telling them that this is exactly what I expect for success! This is not only what I expect, it’s what I am hoping for. It shows me that progress is being made. I have seen the kids progress a huge amount this year using TCI methods and TPRS. There is no way that they could have done half the things they can currently do without it. At the same time, their work is messy and filled with errors—the kinds of errors that students going from novice to intermediate usually make.

Translators are great and can be a really wonderful tool, but they don’t replace the language inside a person’s head. Sure, they can (sometimes) produce grammatically correct writing, but they can’t do what a real person can do and that is where they are limited: they aren’t the Universal Translator from Star Trek, they aren’t the Babel Fish from Hitchhiker’s Guide. They are no replacement for a real person’s language use.

For the majority of the students who have turned in work that hasn’t been machine translated, the errors are almost always limited to the following: right word, wrong conjugation/form or wrong translation from the Spanish-English dictionary (side note, my favorite false translation from a dictionary is to say reloj for watch, as in “Quiero reloj una película”-I got this error once when I taught at the college level and I got it once this year and it makes me smile every time and I get to talk about how to use dictionaries for finding translations). These are the errors that the students have been producing all year and they have been steadily improving with more and more input.

When reviewing work, students tend to focus on their errors–they see a lot of different colored ink on their papers and immediately freak out. The fact is, though, that the errors above don’t really get in the way of comprehensibility. I can understand their stories. I am amazed by what they can do, but I have trouble conveying that to them (somehow telling them this to their faces doesn’t really translate into them understanding that they are doing a great job…Middle schoolers…what can ya do?)

Ultimately, I don’t want beautiful or perfect final essays. I want them messy and filled with errors because that’s how the students write. I don’t want them to have great grammar, I want them to be themselves, errors and all. Using translators is convenient and getting help from family members and friends is very nice, but online translators and family members don’t attend my classes.

Not even taking into account the issue of cheating/academic dishonesty, when students allow someone else to do their work, I don’t get a chance to see what that student can really do. I don’t get the opportunity to asses the student’s work, I get to assess the helper’s work. It gives me absolutely no indication of what the student is able to do. And that is the real trouble with translators (both machine and human).

One comment

  1. I have stopped worrying and love the translator. Sort of. Like you, I think there are ways to use “Profesor Google” for good and for evil. For good – I tell them to write out what they think is right and then paste their Spanish into it. If the English comes back totally wonky, there’s probably a major error. If it’s 90% understandable, then they’re on target. I was hoping I’d go a whole year without translator abuse, but yesterday we had 4 days left and I had a student try to pull it on me on his final project. 😦 I always remind them that if Profesor Google does the work, then Profesor Google gets a grade and the student gets a 0 because the student didn’t do the work. I hate using grades as the carrot/stick but that’s the game we have to play.


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