Google Translate Tackles Geography

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in February 2012]

Google as a whole can hardly be accused of geographical illiteracy, as Google Maps and Google Earth have become standard tools for numerous professional geographers and amateur travelers alike. But there does not seem to be a good information flow between Google’s geographical departments and its linguistic tool, Google Translate. Or perhaps too much information is also a bad thing.

VTontanbCase in point: how Google Translate handles translation of toponyms, say, from Bulgarian into English. According to Ivan Derzhanski, the same location can be translated four different ways, depending on punctuation. Or rather, on punctuation mistakes. The properly punctuated Bulgarian name and location of Vasil Levski National Military University, Национален военен университет «Васил Левски» (Велико Търново), is translated into English as National Military University “Vasil Levski”(Montana). Before you worry about moving Bulgaria’s national military academy into Western United States, some 5700 miles (~9200 km), it should be mentioned that there is a city called Montana in Bulgaria, about 165 miles (265 km) to the northwest of Veliko Turnovo. To achieve a more correct translation, the closing parenthesis must be omitted. I will also ignore the question of whether first vowel in the second word of Велико Търново is best rendered in English with an “i”, an “a”, or a “u”, as all of these spellings occur either on Google Maps, Google Translate, or in Wikipedia articles. In terms of its pronunciation, the sound spelled in Bulgarian with a “ъ” is a schwa-like mid central vowel, intermediate between /i/, /a/ and /u/. In English words this vowel can be spelled with an “i” (bird), a “u” (turn), or even an “o” (love).

While dropping the closing parenthesis gives us the correct translation, dropping the closing quote mark from the name of the university makes Google Translate move the institution to another city: Plovdiv, about 115 miles (185 km) to the southwest of Veliko Turnovo. And what if we combine both of these punctuation mistakes, omitting both the closing parenthesis and the closing quote mark? The university moves once again, this time to Stara Zagora, located approximately 65 miles (105 km) to the south of Veliko Turnovo.

While in some instances punctuation does change the meaning of a phrase, this is clearly not the case here. And why mistyping punctuation should move a geographical location is one of those mysteries of Google Translate that are beyond human understanding.

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