Can You Trust French Translation Apps?

French translation apps and translators are practical. They help you quickly understand what you read and communicate more easily.

Can you trust their translations though?

That’s what I wanted to find out so I decided to ask the most popular translation services to translate a simple dialogue.

I wanted to see how well the different translations apps would translate it from English into French.

How well do popular translation apps translate a simple dialogue?

French Together course dialogue

I chose a dialogue from the French Together course because it  contains lots of everyday vocabulary, the kind of vocabulary a French learner going to France would need.

The question I wanted answered was: if you were in a French restaurant and needed a quick translation, would these translation apps help you or embarrass you?

Here is the dialogue:

Hello Madame, do you have any vegetarian dishes?
Of course. We have fish.
I don’t eat fish.
We also have chicken.
Erm, I don’t eat chicken either.

And its translation

Bonjour madame, est-ce que vous avez des plats végétariens ?
Bien entendu. Nous avons du poisson.
Je ne mange pas de poisson.
Nous avons également du poulet.
Euh, je n’en mange pas non plus.

Now let’s see how the most popular French translation apps translated it.

Reverso

reverso French

Reverso, one of the most popular translation apps, did a pretty good job when it comes to translating the general idea. You could use this translation in France and be understood (provided you pronounce everything correctly).

Unfortunately, Reverso’s translation is also full of grammar mistakes (“le poisson” instead of “du poisson”, “la Madame” instead of “Madame”).

The result is a translation you can use but that will have a bad influence on your French because it will teach you incorrect grammatical structures.

Reverso also offers an interesting service called Reverso Context.

Instead of automatic translations, Reverso Context offers you a selection of translations from the web. You can then see the source of the translation and decide whether the source is trustworthy enough.

Bonjour la Madame, avez-vous des plats végétariens ?
Bien sûr. Nous avons le poisson.
Je ne mange pas de poisson.
Nous avons aussi le poulet.
Erm, je ne mange pas de poulet non plus.

Google Translate

Google Translate French

Google Translate did a much better job than Reverso and offered a flawless translation. No grammar mistakes here.

In addition to its ability to translate, Google Translate offers a text-to-speech service you can use to hear everything pronounced.

I was less impressed by this text-to-speech functionality.

The robotic voice pronounced most of the text correctly but sounded far from natural.

The voice also failed to pronounce filler words and sounds like “erm” were pronounced as separate letters (E.R.M) instead of being pronounced correctly as one word..

Bonjour Madame, avez-vous des plats végétariens?
Bien sûr. Nous avons du poisson.
Je ne mange pas de poisson.
Nous avons aussi du poulet.
Erm, je ne mange pas de poulet non plus.

Freetranslation.com

SDL Free Translation French

I was fairly confident freetranslation.com would do well because it’s made by the creators of Trados, a well-known computer-assisted translation software suite.

While it did perform better than Reverso, the translation it offered was far from gramatically perfect (“des poissons” instead of “du poisson”, “le poulet” instead of “du poulet”).

Bonjour Madame, avez-vous des plats végétariens ?
Bien sûr. Nous avons des poissons.
Je ne mange pas de poisson.
Nous avons aussi le poulet.
Erm, je ne mange pas de poulet non plus.

Bing Translator

Microsoft Translator

Bing Translator did a great job and offered a perfect translation. Its translation was so close to Google Translate’s that I even wondered if the two apps were not using the same translation service.

There was, however, one major difference.

While Google Translate chose the pronoun “nous”, Bing chose the more informal “on” to say “we”.

This isn’t a problem in everyday life (and I would even encourage you to use “on” to sound less formal) but could be problematic if you need to speak French in a more formal setting.

This video from Oh La La, I Speak French perfectly explains the difference between the two pronouns.

Bonjour Madame, avez-vous des plats végétariens?
Bien sûr. On a du poisson.
Je ne mange pas de poisson.
On a aussi du poulet.
Euh, je ne mange pas de poulet non plus.

 Should you use translation tools?

female interpreter

After seeing that both Google Translate and Bing Translator did a great job, you may be tempted to use them to translate from French into English or English into French but that would be a mistake.

French translation apps have gotten a lot better lately and offer a simple way to quickly understand the general meaning of a text but expecting more from these apps is dangerous for several reasons.

#1 French translation apps still make lots of mistakes

The fact two of the translation apps I reviewed (Bing Translator and Google Translate) perfectly translated the dialogue I asked them to translate doesn’t mean they never make mistakes.

Google Translate’s embarrassing mistakes regularly go viral and relying too much on these tools will hurt you because you run the risk of learning from their frequent grammar mistakes.

As a French learner, you won’t know that “Nous avons aussi le poulet” should be “Nous avons aussi du poulet” and will end up learning an incorrect grammatical structure because of these apps.

That’s why it’s essential to learn French with a trusted course and avoid material created by non-native speakers.

The last point may be controversial. After all, there are lots of passionate French learners who create and share awesome content.

The problem is that material created by non-native speaker frequently contains tiny mistakes, and these mistakes add up.

If you mostly learn from sources with mistakes, you’ll make mistakes too because you’ll assume that what you learn is correct.

#2 The translation mistakes can be embarrassing

Talking about Google Translate’s mistakes…

Here is what happened when I asked the app to translate “I try to avoid foods with preservatives” from English into French.

J’essaie d’éviter les aliments avec des préservatifs

Yup. Google Translate translated “I try to avoid foods with condoms”.

Not something you would want to say in a restaurant.

#3 French translation apps don’t know the context

The French language is much more formal than the English language and this makes it hard for translation apps to know how to translate.

Take the case of “tu” vs “vous”. They both mean “you”. The only difference is that one is informal while the other is formal.

French translation apps don’t know whether you are supposed to speak formally or informally so you may end up sounding rude if you rely on their translation.

If you decide to use French translation apps despite this risk, make sure to check whether the translation you got uses “tu” or “vous” as it’s a good indicator of the degree of formality in French.

What to use instead of French translation apps?

reddit Frenchhelp

For all the reasons above, I recommend you to only use translation apps to translate from French into English and as a way to quickly understand the meaning of a sentence.

Otherwise, you may end up learning incorrect French and making embarrassing mistakes.

If you really want to translate from English into French, the best you can do is ask someone to do it for you.

There are two subreddits that are particularly helpful for that. R/translator is all about translation requests while r/frenchhelp is dedicated to helping you with the French language in general.

And you, what do you use to translate French?

11 thoughts on “Can You Trust French Translation Apps?”

  1. I tried Google Translate with the test sentence from the article to see if what you wrote was true. As of 1500 hr on 1/30/20, the translated text is accurate, with preservatives but no condoms.

    Input = I try to avoid foods with preservatives.

    Output = J’essaie d’éviter les aliments contenant des conservateurs.

    Reply
  2. I use Reverso to see a French word or phrase in several contexts which I great for getting more of the feeling of the word/phrase. But the English translations provided underneath each French example are often appallingly translated, with bad grammar and ghastly use of idiomatic phrases. I’d never use this app for translations!

    I do use Google Translate to get a sense of the meaning of a French phrase or to see what it would supply as a French translation of a word I don’t yet know in French but I treat it with caution as I now know enough to notice some grammatical errors.

    Reply
  3. I use Google translate to translate English into French. I then copy the French translation into the English box and correct the anomalies there. I find Google seems to ´learn’ often used terms. I have to convert English Minutes of meetings into French which have particular phrases repeated. I tried a different translator with the same phrases and received literal translations which were not in context.

    Reply
  4. Early in my quest to learn French, I used all of the above when I wanted to translate English to French. Since my French is much better, I write in French and then I go to Bon Patron to check it or see how close I am to a correct sentence. If you type something in French, it gives you the correct grammar, spelling, conjugation, and how you can change it all in French. My confidence has increased in speaking and writing because I’m thinking first in French and then checking to see if the French is correct. I wonder how well this site measures up to the other online translators?

    Reply
  5. Much to my annoyance and after 35 years of driving my licence is no longer valid in France so need to take the French driving test. The theory test is extremely difficult for I find French an almost impossible language to master even though I live here. I have the Code de la route online and google translate it into English take the quiz in english then take it again in French. The translations are a big help for me and I can overlook some bizarre translations. I wouldn’t however rely on it for translating from English to French. I then go to the driving school and take the quiz in French being more able to understand the written questions.

    Reply
  6. When my husband and I were first dating (15 years ago) we found it highly amusing to take a normal sentence (like “I had lunch yesterday with my friend and her kids.”) and put it through translator apps in several languages, then back to English. For example, English > Portuguese > Japanese > Swahili > German > Russian > Arabic > Italian > English. Often we would end up with such hilarious concoctions as “Yesterday my friend who eats children saw me over.” A fun game, but a reminder that translation apps are no substitute for actual knowledge.

    Reply
  7. Deepl translator: Bonjour Madame, avez-vous des plats végétariens?
    Bien sûr que oui. On a du poisson.
    Je ne mange pas de poisson.
    Nous avons aussi du poulet.
    Je ne mange pas de poulet non plus.

    Reply
  8. Years ago when Google translate was still a bit in its infancy, I tried it on a passage in German. Within the passage was the name of Sigmund Freud, who appeared in his post-Google phase as “Victory- Mouth Joy (Sieg + Mund + Freude). But perhaps it’s unfair to cite a proper name.

    Reply
    • Google Translate is full of surprises :). I actually enjoy asking it to translate some random things just to see how it will do.

      Reply

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