Expats’ Love/Hate Relationship with Google Translate Explained

I have a love/hate relationship with Google Translate. People tell me DeepL is better. The few times I’ve looked at it I found that it has the same problems. It hasn’t been that much better that I’ve wanted to swap. I’m lazy. So I’m going to talk about Google Translate, but I think it applies to all of the automatic translation tools.

When I knew I was coming to Spain to live, I thought I could get by with my very basic tourist Spanish and Google Translate while I learnt the language. When I had been here before as a tourist I marvelled at Google Translate. But, as a tourist, who didn’t run into any stressful situations, I didn’t notice all of the problems and frustrations I have now that I am living here.

Why am I frustrated with Google Translate?

Well there are many reasons:

  1. It is slow. I know it’s crazy because it’s instantaneous, but people have less patience with devices than they do with people – so passing the phone back and forwards feels slow and painful.
  2. It is inconvenient. Again, I realise I am so lazy and privileged to be moaning about such things. But living here, typing things in, taking pictures of things, or trying to use the microphone is all much less convenient than just talking.
  3. It isn’t as easy to use as it seems. As I learn more Spanish, I learn more about the mistakes the translations are making. I also learn more about how to give the software the context it needs to get closer translations. Playing these ‘guess what the computer needs to know’ games are slow and inconvenient. But guessing right is the difference between asking the repairman to fix a broken spring (the coiled up wire) and a broken Spring (the season). These mistakes are funny as a tourist, but can get grating and wear you down if you live somewhere you can’t speak the language.
  4. It doesn’t understand you. Even as it has gotten so much better at translating, in context, Google translate will never understand you. See this article here for more on this. That’s not its job. That means it can’t offer you explanations, or alternatives, when you hit a language barrier. It makes you feel stupid and alone. It won’t try to help you achieve what the conversation is trying to achieve.

These are the main reasons, I have grown frustrated with it. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s amazing and I still use it regularly. In fact I am using it more again. There was a time when I wouldn’t use it at all. Maybe you went through the same process?

The Life Cycle of Google Translate Usage

For me there’s been four stages so far. There may be more to come, but I don’t think so, especially now that I have myAmigos.

  1. Tourist honeymoon period. You feel like there’s nothing you can’t accomplish with your tourist Spanish, a smile, some patience, and Google Translate. When you hit language barriers, it’s a fun anecdote. Google Translate seems to be laughing with you and helping you have more fun than you would without it.
  2. Growing frustration period. As your Spanish gets a little better, you tend not to need it for the everyday conversations. Trying to use it might help you learn more, but you can feel it slowing you down in every interaction. So you save it for those important interactions where your tourist Spanish doesn’t help. Unfortunately, this is when you are likely to need more context to understand things, or more support because you are stressed, or a faster resolution to an urgent need. These are precisely the limitations of Google Translate, so you’re only using it in situations where it is less than ideal.
  3. Disillusionment. This is where I was when I had the idea for myAmigos. You are frustrated with how slowly you are learning the language and you are painfully aware of the limitations of Google Translate. Everything seems to be impossibly hard to get done. Google Translate now seems to be laughing at you, not with you. You’re not laughing any more. Don’t worry this stage doesn’t have to last long – especially now that myAmigos exists. You may not need to go through it at all.
  4. A new partnership. Slowly you work out what Google Translate is good for. (It was great for giving me the gist of the notes sent home from my daughters’ school for example.) You now know more Spanish. So you can sometimes catch it when it’s wrong, and give the computer more of the context it needs to give you better words. You know when it is faster to use it, or to muddle through yourself. Congratulations. You’re now a Google Translate Master.

But, all of its issues still remain. You now know how to work within them. But, if you’re like me, you are also now aware that there are going to be a lot of language barriers that Google Translate cannot remove for you. So what are the alternatives?

What are the Best Alternatives to Google Translate for Expats?

Well there are a few alternatives that can help you out when Google Translate can’t. I was going to try to rank them, but really it depends on why Google Translate is not good enough for you. Of course, Google Translate is convenient for spur of the moment needs and is free, so it does have some advantages. The best approach is to have a range of tools. Here’s some that might come in handy:

  1. Use a bilingual friend. This was my best solution. It inspired myAmigos. Friends can provide the support, understanding, compassion, encouragement, and fun that Google Translate can’t. While this seemed perfect at first, after a while I noticed a few problems. I didn’t want to keep imposing upon my friends. There were some things I needed to do that I didn’t want my friends to know all the details about. (I won’t be more specific because I don’t want the world to know my business either. But I am sure there are things in your life which you would rather talk to a helpful stranger about than to a real friend.) My friends weren’t always available when I needed them to be. Some of my friends’ language skills were not quite as good as I thought they were. myAmigos was designed to have all of the advantages of using a real friend and none of these disadvantages.
  2. Use a professional interpreter. If language is the most important thing, then you can go down this route. I tried to book one a couple of times, but I felt silly and couldn’t go through with it. Sure if I was having a business conference and needed someone to manage professional groups of people negotiating a deal impartially, this would be ideal. (And what all their web-sites seemed to be about.) But to help me switch phone providers? It seemed like a job that was too small for them, and too expensive for me. You can see the earlier blog post about why we are proud not to be professional interpreters here.
  3. Learn Spanish. Well, yes. This is ideal. And I am working on it. I am just surprised by how slowly I am learning. I am also surprised by how quickly I have forgotten what I learnt. Especially when I am trying to accomplish something that is a little out of my comfort zone. I am sick of Facebook trolls telling people to just learn the language. That advice doesn’t help you solve the problems you have now. I suspect, and hope, here at myAmigos we will have a customer for a couple of years while their Spanish improves. (Actually, I am hoping to build expat resources and deals, so that you may want to remain a friend even after you don’t need our language services, but that’s for another time. I like making long-lasting friendships.)
  4. Use myAmigos. Of course it has to be here. It’s not the perfect tool for all your language barriers, but it gets close. It offers the understanding of a real friend. But without worrying about language, privacy, or availability issues. It’s much quicker than learning the language. There is no minimum hourly charge, or charges for travel, like with a professional interpreter. There is no expectation that you need to book us for something serious, although, of course you can. We want you to use us whenever we can save you time, money, or stress compared with the other options. We want to help you feel safer, more connected, and to have more fun while you are here in Spain.

If you haven’t tried us out yet, you can sign up here.

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The UltiMartes – February 2022

It’s that time again. Each month we want to bring you some of the highlights from the myAmigos journey in our quest

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