It is an amazing piece of technology – put a sentence in a box and see it translated into any of 103 languages. But what impact for good or bad does Google Translate have on a minority language?
“The reason was that it worked,” says Macduff Hughes, the engineering director leading the project.
“Google Translate is built by finding language data on the web.”
There were enough examples of Welsh translations online for Google’s computers to crunch and build a machine translation service of sufficient quality.
That was the theory at least. But not everyone agreed about the quality.
Very quickly people began to spot that Google Translate was often throwing up mangled or nonsensical sentences.
And often, according to the comedian Gary Slaymaker, these were making their way into public documents and signage when companies saw an easy way of cutting the cost of translation.
“Rather than pay for a living breathing Welsh translator they’ll put their translations through Google Translate and end up with word porridge,” he says.
Soon the term Scymraeg, or scummy Welsh, was born and it has really caught on – it is part of Gary’s stand-up routine, and examples are posted via a Twitter hashtag and in a Flickr group.
Among them, a sign reading “Blasting in Progress” was rendered as “Gweithwyr yn ffrwydro” or “workers exploding”.
Ben Screen, a translator working for the NHS, says this all created “negative feelings” about the service.
“There’s so much translation in the public sector,” he explains.
“People were using Google Translate all the time for their documents and websites and signs in particular and they were wrong.”
There was concern too about the impact on learning the language – once schoolchildren knew they could just go to a website to do their Welsh homework, wouldn’t that stop them really getting an understanding of the language?
At Willows High School in Cardiff, the head of Welsh, Abi Rees, gets together half a dozen Year 10 pupils to chat about this question.
‘Life or death matters’
It is clear that this technology has been advancing rapidly since Google decided to include Welsh on the service, with a leap forward in the last two years as a technique called deep learning produced much more accurate translations.
But Google’s Mr Hughes, who has Welsh forebears and took a course in the language a few years back, urges caution with how the service is used.
“You should use it when you need to communicate and understand and you have reasonable tolerance for mistakes,” he says.
As an example he explains how he used it successfully in Japan on a hunt for some shoelaces. But he says: “I would not use it for high stakes things today without review – legal contracts, life or death matters.”
And even professional translators like Mr Screen are coming round to the idea that Google Translate can be a useful tool.
“The way we’d use it is you’d use a source text for English and put it through Google first – Google would give you something,” he explains.
And he has a message for those wanting the language and its translators to thrive in the machine age – it “depends on the Welsh community continuing to care about and embrace the Welsh language”.