I am hopelessly mono-language. But I find I am constantly dealing with other languages, so I always have my Latin, Spanish, and French dictionaries close by. And, of course, I use Google Translate because it is one of the very greatest things about the internet. Often, it is so good that I don’t even have to use the books. About the only time it isn’t enough is when I’m translating very old Spanish or French, which is more common than you might think.
But I am constantly amazed at just how terrible Google Translate is at detecting languages. It basically never gets it right. I understand that it has a lot of languages, and if I entered large chunks of text, it would doubtless do a better job. But it really is pathetic.
I took a little bit of Horce’s famous Ode iii.2, “solvat phaselon; saepe Diespiter.” I don’t think you have to be a genius to realize that this is Latin. But what did Google Translate think it was? Afrikaans. Really. And not only that! It translated it into English as, “solvat phaselon; saepe Diespiter.” That is to say: it didn’t recognize a single word as Afrikaans, but it still said it was an Afrikaans phrase. If I go in and manually select “Latin,” it translates the phrase correctly, “pay to the boat; often Jupiter.”
Now if we put that English phrase into Google Translate and ask it to translate into Afrikaans, we get, “skenk aan die boot; dikwels Jupiter.” If you are really drunk and you squint really hard, that kind of looks like the original Latin. So I’m willing to admit that the Google Translate auto-detection is as good as a drunk squinter.
The system is just as bad with obvious phrases. Put in “cri de coeur” and Google announces, “Romanian.” And again, it translates it into English as, “cri de coeur”! But this time the English, “cry of heart” gets translated into Romanian as, “strigăt de inimă.” That doesn’t look anything like it, although it does have the same “de,” so there’s that.
I suspect what is really going on is that the program to do auto-detect just doesn’t work very hard. But you would think that for default English speakers, it would try French and German first. I get that Latin might be the last thing it checks. But not getting “cri de coeur” is really amazing.