Google Health Speaks or Garbled Sick Speak?

If you thought that medical translations should be performed exclusively by professional medical translators, you are in for a big surprise!

At the end of August 2010, Google launched a new community based translation project, Health Speaks. The aim of the project is to open the information door to health related articles to Arabic, Hindi and Swahili speakers, as the large majority of health related articles available in English are inaccessible to non-English speakers.


The aim of the project is indubitably commendable; yet, the chosen mean to achieve it is more questionable. The mishap of Facebook crowdsourcing translation project in Turkey last July is a blatant example of the dangers of relying on unedited translations performed by volunteers.


For that Turkish translation project, a selection of 56 words and phrases commonly used across the Facebook platform, words and phrases such as “Like” or “Your message could not be sent because the user is offline” were to be translated into Turkish. Unbeknownst to Facebook managers, a group of Turkish pranksters enlisted the help of their fellow message board users to mount a large-scale linguistic assault. The pranksters abused the official Facebook Translate interface, a crowdsourcing method for improving the linguistic accuracy of the site. Discussion forum members then went on to vote en masse to push these translations containing offensive and insulting terms. The word “Like” for example was ‘translated’ into another word that rhymes with Duck but begins with an F. The familiar notification in Facebook chat “Your message could not be sent because the user is offline” became “Your message could not be sent because of your tiny penis”.

In that case, the major damage caused by the pranksters was a large quantity of red faces and probably a lot of giggles. However, it clearly underlines the dangers of the total absence of quality control procedure.


When tackling a subject as delicate as medical translations, however, even assuming that pranksters would stay away out of respect for general health, relying on the goodwill of volunteer translators is taking a wide leap of faith. Medical a translation is a particularly sensitive sub-domain of translation, as a mistake in the translation has potentially lethal consequence. This is why medical translations are almost always performed by professional medical translators.


Google management offers to pay $3 cents per translated English word to a charity in the area covered by the target language. This is meant to be an incentive for volunteer translators, further underlining how worthy their work will be. It also will enable Google to present itself as a benefactor of local communities, generously squandering money to improve local medical facilities, though Google does not mention that.


Actually, if Google was so devoted to improving health, the $3 cents per English word would probably be better invested in hiring human editors to go over the work of the volunteer translators and verify that Google Translator Kit glossaries, that are to be used and expanded on by the volunteers, are accurate.


This would at least provide some level of control on the quality of the translations, especially necessary as though the core subject will be medical. Google does not require the volunteers to be qualified medical translators. Of course, such a move would imply that Google is ready to acknowledge that it’s translation technology is advanced enough to dispense with such trifles, and would be infinitely less glamorous than donating money to health facilities.


The question is, should someone actually get hurt, crippled or worse because of a mistranslation resulting from that project, who is responsible? The user, the volunteer translator or Google? Shouldn’t Google be required to at least post a warning such as :

 Warning : Translation into [insert appropriate language] performed by unsupervised, not necessarily qualified,  volunteers. The result of the translation might, or not, reflect the content of the original post. Readers are advised to verify the translation individually. 

Such a warning would of course considerably diminish the glamour Google is no doubt hoping to gain from this project, but it might at least draw the user’s attention to the need to exercise caution. Of course, verifying the translation individually would have to be done either through a professional medical translator, or through surfing through similar articles – all of course bearing the same warning.