Google Translate Fails With Languages That Have Gender (and Number)

Posted By Debbie on May 21, 2018

I’ve been leaning on Google Translate a lot to help me as I learn Italian. But I noticed something that’s a major fail.

In English, if you want to say you’re back (you have returned), you can say, “I’m back.” If someone says that, we don’t know if they’re male or female just from hearing those words. If I said, “We’re back,” you know from “we” that there’s more than one of us but you don’t know the gender of the people. The word “back” is the same in both places.

That’s English. English is very simple when it comes to gender and number. We have some plurals of course but we don’t have different adjectives for speakers who are male or female. We don’t see certain nouns as male or female.

But many languages do, especially the Romance languages descended from Latin… like Italian. Which means, “I’ve returned,” looks and sounds different if the speaker is male or female.

Google gives me everything in the masculine.

Ask Google Translate for “I’m back” in Italian and you’ll get this. The shield means they’ve checked this with a community of (native) speakers and it’s really right!

But as a Romance language, gender matters and shows up in many words. “Tornato” is what we say about a man. “Tornata” is what I want because I need the “a” ending to indicate I’m female (or talking about a female).

This shows up in all of the translations. If I ask Google Translate for, “That’s beautiful,” it gives me, “Questo è bello.” “Bello” has the o ending which means it’s masculine. But what if I’m pointing at a noun that is feminine? I would have to say, “” to be correct.

If I include the noun, like “This fork is beautiful,” I do get the right gender endings.

I got bellissima instead of bellissimo.

How do we fix this?

There are so many languages that require gender and number to construct certain words. Google should (start to) know where these are and ask. If I am writing sentence with I or me, ask me which gender I wish to use. Could even be a simple toggle above the text box I’m typing in.

But that doesn’t totally fix everything. If I say, “That’s beautiful,” what is that? Fork is female, spoon is male. Google would have to ask what I was referring to, and that means parsing the sentence to know that it needs more info to give me a better translation. I’d have to say I was talking about one spoon, and then Google can give me singular male adjectives.

Still, I almost expect that from a company that just previewed a bot that can just about pass the Turing Test.

Help us out, Google.

Help me not look stupid by writing a bunch of male words referring to my female self. I’m getting good enough with Italian that if I’m using Google Translate, I will then correct it when pasting it into an email.

But with the on-the-go app version, if I speak into it and say, “I’m tired,” I will get the masculine version of tired. That makes me look pretty weird to the Italians I’m trying to talk to!