It can be difficult to tell whether a translation website is accurate or not – which isn’t ideal if you’re stranded in a foreign city. While most of the services are far better than they once were, not all tools are created equal. We go on the hunt for the best online translator.
Best online translator: Summary of results
I’m aware that some people just want to know the answer, although I encourage you to read through to find out each service’s strengths and weaknesses.
To find out, I put five leading websites – Google Translate, Bing Microsoft Translator, DeepL, BabelFish and Babylon – through their paces in a couple of gruelling tests. Here’s a summary of how they fared:
|Name of service||Grade||Verdict|
|BabelFish||D||Okay – if you just need the vague gist.|
|Babylon||E||Scrambles text beyond recognition. Woeful.|
|Bing Microsoft |
|B+||A decent, unflashy translation tool.|
|DeepL||C+||Sometimes great, but makes silly mistakes.|
|Google Translate||A||Absolutely brilliant, with support for over 100 languages.|
Best online translator: Our method
First, I examined how well each translator converted a paragraph of German into English (something I used to do for a living), before conducting a similar test with languages that use different alphabets. I then compared the number of tongues the services are “fluent” in to crown an overall champion.
What better excerpt to use for the test than a paragraph about Berlin from the German tourism website? Here’s the original:
Was hat Berlin, das andere Weltstädte nicht haben? Da sind in erster Linie einmal die Berliner selbst, deren rauer, aber herzlicher Charme diese ganz eigene Berlin-Atmosphäre verbreitet. Und natürlich ein geradezu unglaublicher Reichtum an Sehenswürdigkeiten, in dem sich Aufbruchsstimmung und Zeitgeist ebenso widerspiegeln wie große Geschichte und die Dramen des 20. Jahrhunderts.germany.travel/de/staedte-kultur/staedte/berlin
And here’s my best effort, completed using my hard-earned German skills and trusty dog-eared dictionary…
What does Berlin have that other world cities don’t? First, there are the Berliners themselves, whose rough but friendly charm spreads the characteristic Berlin atmosphere. And then, of course, there’s the downright unbelievable wealth of sights that reflect the spirit of optimism and the zeitgeist, as well as great history and the dramas of the 20th century.
But how did the online services fare? Let’s start with the most famous of all.
What does Berlin have that other world cities do not have? First and foremost are the Berliners themselves, whose rough but heartfelt charm spreads this very own Berlin atmosphere. And, of course, an unbelievable wealth of sights, reflecting a spirit of upheaval and zeitgeist as
wellas great history and the dramas of the 20th century.
This is a very good effort indeed. Aside from getting the general gist of the paragraph, it reads well in English and there are just a couple of minor hiccups (“very own Berlin atmosphere” and “spirit of upheaval”, rather than the correct “spirit of optimism”). I particularly like that “zeitgeist” has been left as it is, rather than being clunkily rendered as “spirit of the time”. Impressive stuff.
Bing Microsoft Translator
What does Berlin have that other world cities don’t have? First and foremost, there are the Berliners themselves, whose rough but heartfelt charm spreads this very own Berlin atmosphere. And, of course, an incredible wealth of sights, reflecting the spirit of awakening and zeitgeist as much as great history and the dramas of the 20th century.
Almost exactly the same as Google’s offering, Bing’s translation is excellent. Although, again, it slips up with “this very own” and weirdly converts Aufbruchsstimmung to “spirit of awakening”, there are plenty of commas in the correct places and the paragraph flows well. It wins an extra mark for leaving the red herring “zeitgeist” in place, too.
What does Berlin have
that other world citiesdon’t? First and foremost there are the Berliners themselves, whose rough but cordial charm spreads their very own Berlin atmosphere. And of course an unbelievable wealth of sights, which reflect the spirit of departure and the spirit of the times as well as great history and the dramas of the 20th century.
However, there are a few negatives: missing commas, the mistranslation to “their very own” and “spirit of departure”, rather than “spirit of optimism”. Although technically correct, having “spirit of the times” instead of just “zeitgeist” is clunkier than a horse walking downstairs in clogs.
What does Berlin, other cities do not have? There are first and foremost once the Berliners themselves, whose harsh but warm charming this unique Berlin atmosphere. And of
coursean almost incredible wealth of attractions in the optimism and spirit of the times also reflected like large history and the dramas of the 20th century.
Hooray! BabelFish was the first online tool to not misunderstand “this unique Berlin atmosphere” – it’s just a shame that the positives end there. Babelfish’s sins include “charming” instead of “charm”, a lack of commas around “of course”, no “zeitgeist” and a nonsensical first sentence. Must try harder.
What does Berlin, the other world cities do not have? There are primarily once the Berlin itself, the rough, but warm charm this very unique Berlin atmosphere. And, of course, an almost unbelievable wealth of sights, in which mood of optimism and the spirit of the time as well as great history and reflect the dramas of the 20th century. Century.
Deary me, what a mess. Where to start? The opening sentence makes no sense – nor does the second or third. And what’s going on with the extra “Century” at the end? Awful.
Best online translator: The different alphabets test:
This test was a little less specific as, much to my shame, I can’t speak Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Hindi or Russian fluently. What I was investigating is how well the websites cope with non-Latin alphabets and if the translations made any sense. And the results were surprisingly good.
For the test, I chose a random section of a text that’s has been professionally translated into every language and is available for free online. Here’s Section 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in English:
Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights
Google Translate (Korean):
모든 사람은 교육을 받을 권리를 가진다 . 교육은 최소한 초등 및 기초단계에서는 무상이어야 한다. 초등교육은 의무적이어야 한다. 기술 및 직업교육은 일반적으로 접근이 가능하여야 하며, 고등교육은 모든 사람에게 실력에 근거하여 동등하게 접근 가능하여야 한다.
…was translated to:
Everyone has the right to education. Education should be free at least in elementary and basic levels. Elementary education should be mandatory. Technical and vocational education should be accessible in general and tertiary education should be equally accessible to all, based on skills.
Okay, the words and sentence structure vary a bit from the original, but it’s another impressive effort from Google that pretty much conveys the section’s meaning. There’s a rather important slip-up, though: “should” instead of “shall” in the second sentence sounds like compulsory elementary education is an aim, rather than a given.
Bing Microsoft Translator (Japanese):
すべて人は、教育を受ける権利を有する。教育は、少なくとも初等 の及び基礎的の段階においては、無償でなければならない。初等教育は、 義務的でなければならない。技術教育及び職業教育は、一般に利用できる もでなければならず、また、高等教育は、能力に応じ、すべての者にひと しく開放されていなければならない。
…was translated to:
All people have the right to education. Education must be free at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Primary education must be mandatory. The technical education and the vocational education must be available to the general public, and the higher education should be equally open to all the people according to the ability.
Bing’s effort isn’t as slick, with an unnecessary “the” or two in the final sentence and the meaning left unclear at points. Still, it handled the second sentence better than Google and, for some reason, used the British term “primary”, rather than “elementary”. Jolly good.
Каждый человекимеет право на образование. Образование должно быть бесплатным поменьшей мере в том, что касается начального и общего образования. Начальноеобразование должно быть обязательным. Техническое и профессиональное образование должно быть общедоступным, ивысшее образование должно быть одинаково доступным для всех на основеспособностей каждого.
Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free of charge, at least in primary and general education. Primary education shall be compulsory. Technical and vocational education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of everyone’s abilities.
प्रत्येक व्यक्ति को शिक्षा का अधिकार है । शिक्षा कम से कम प्रारम्भिक और बुनियादी अवस्थाओं में निःशुल्क होगी । प्रारम्भिक शिक्षा अनिवार्य होगी । टेक्निकल, ��ांत्रिक और पेशों-सम्बन्धी शिक्षा साधारण रूप से प्राप्त होगी और उच्चतर शिक्षा सभी को योग्यता के आधार पर समान रूप से उपलब्ध होगी
…was rendered as:
Everyone has a right to education. Education will be free at least in the initial and basic stages. Elementary education will be compulsory. Technical, mechanical and professions-related education will be achieved in general and higher education will be equally available on merit by all.
Hmm, this is an odd one. The basic structure of the original is there, but the word changes are too important to ignore (for example, “initial and basic stages”, rather than “the elementary and fundamental stages”). As with Babelfish’s German effort, one of the sentences, the last, is a complete compete mess that makes no sense.
لكل شخص الحق في التعلم. ويجبأن يكون التعليم في مراحله الأولى والأساسية على الأقل بالمجان، وأن يكون التعليمالأولي إلزاميا وينبغي أن يعمم التعليم الفني والمهني، وأن ييسر القبول للتعليمالعالي على قدم المساواة التامة للجميع وعلى أساس الكفاءة.
…was “translated” to:
Everyone has the right to learn. Education must be at least in the elementary and fundamental stages, and that the free primary education shall be compulsory and should circulate technical and vocational education, and to facilitate the acceptance of higher education to full equality for all on the basis of efficiency.
Ouch, my eyes! There’s not much point going through all of Babylon’s mistakes as there are too many (fullstops anyone?). Suffice to say, if you work for the UN – or are even just ordering a beer in a Paris bar – steer well clear.
Best online translator: Number of languages
|Bing Microsoft Translator||64 (including Klingon…)|
There hasn’t been a clearer winner since my school team got hammered 23-0 in a football “friendly”. Google rules the roost with a vast selection of languages, including rarer choices such as Frisian, Yiddish, Corsican and Maori. Again, it’s very impressive stuff.
Bing covers all of the usual suspects, along with a decent number of languages you don’t normally see in online translators: Fijian, Latvian, Samoan and Malagasy.
As for the rest? They support the largest languages, but are distinctly lacking – especially DeepL, with its meagre collection of nine languages (none of which it translates incredibly well).
Best online translator: The winner
Google Translate – by a country mile. To be honest, I went into this test expecting Google to be somewhere around the middle of the pack, but it was truly excellent. It’s more expansive and accurate than Bing and DeepL, far more of a Babel Fish than BabelFish (particularly if you use its extraordinary app, which we’ll cover in a separate article) and eats
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