Machine translation is a quick fix. It certainly has its place – this year in the Olympic Village, hundreds of athletes will be able to communicate better with media, fans, facilities staff and other athletes with the quick click of a button. But professional misuse of machine translation is rampant and highly visible.
Signs are usually the worst offenders, as official signs often employ a shorthand grammar to save on space and make them sound, well, more official. As an example, many of us have seen this sign when driving through an area near a prison:
“ESCAPED FEDERAL PRISONER DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS”
Using machine translation (Google Translate) from English to Simple Chinese, you get:
Which translates to:
“FEDERAL PRISONERS TO ESCAPE DOES NOT PICK UP A SMOOTH HIKING”
Language on signs can seem so simple to translate with machine translation, since they are usually only a few words, but because of their unique syntax, signs can pose some pretty complex translation issues. Just as machine translation on social networking sites rarely translates colloquial language into anything resembling actual speech, machines have a hard time with signage language.