Wanderlust Wendy

Lost in Translation: Why You Shouldn’t Trust Google Translate

I remember in one of my first French classes in college, the professor made a serious point about not trusting Google Translate when writing our essays. Back then, I remember thinking, but surely, it knows more than I do! Well, here, I have a story that should teach all language learners a very good lesson!

I am fortunate to have grown up speaking Chinese, and I am most impressed by anyone who invests the effort into learning this language. Recently, I received a panic gchat message from a friend that said, “I think I just asked someone to sleep with me on accident!” Now, that’s not a message you get every day.

As it turns out, Friend (let’s not embarrassed the poor guy) here signed up with Conversation Exchange and had sent the following message to a language partner that he has yet to meet: “这个星期六想满足吗?” My eyes scanned across the characters. I didn’t even need to ask him what he was trying to say, and I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. If you understand Chinese, you are likely doing the same thing right now.

“这个星期六想满足吗?” translates as “Do you want to be satisfied this Saturday?” Yet, what Friend was trying to convey was, “Do you want to MEET on Saturday?” (这个星期六想见面吗? )The phrase to meet has duplicate meanings both in Chinese and English. Unfortunately, Google Translate didn’t know the context and gave him the phrase to satisfy (满足) rather than to have a meeting (见面).

Friend then tells me that his language partner responded, “That is not an appropriate phrase here.” And I nearly fell out of my chair again. That’s quite the first impression to make, right? Nothing like a mistake that carries sexual innuendo to make the whole thing that much more awkward. I grew up hearing lots of Chinese language gaffes that laowei (foreigners) make, but this probably is the funniest of all!

I have a great deal of respect for people who don’t mind making gaffes and who realize that this is simply a necessary process in language acquisition. It’s most important to be able to just laugh it off, the way you do when you trip down the stairs, and then get up and keep walking. I’ve made plenty of language gaffes myself, and that embarrassing feeling can be overpowering. The more embarrassing the gaffe, the more hesitation follows when I attempt to speak the language again.

Bravo to Friend who not only got right back up, but was eager to get to the bottom of this gaffe. I told him that he should have used 见面 (jian-mian) instead. 见面 (to meet) literally means 见 (to see) and 面 (face). Not realizing this, Friend said, “Doesn’t that say ‘see noodle’?” In Simplified Chinese, the character for face, is the same for noodle, and I die laughing once again!

Lesson learned: Do NOT trust Google Translate!  Also, keeping a friend around who is learning your language can add a lot of entertainment to your life!