I’m about to tell you one of my absolutely favorite tricks for instantly improving my writing and speaking.
This trick helps me avoid sounding like Borat when writing letters, posting Tweets, or saying things aloud.
I’ve been using this technique for a couple years for a couple different languages, and it just occurred to me that other people might find this useful.
The Problem with Google Translate
I really like Google Translate. It’s an amazing tool, and it’s available for absolutely free. An open secret in the translation community is that some (not all) translators will just plug in the text into GT to help them get started or to see if they’re on the right track.
Not just the scrubs, either. Talented, experienced people will use GT as an aid.
But there’s a reason why machine translation hasn’t outright replaced human translation and probably won’t anytime in the near future. It’s not at the point where it’s consistently accurate, and it often produces awkward, unnatural sentences.
Google to the Rescue
According to this 2013 article, Google indexes 30 trillion websites.
That’s a mountain of information, spanning most, if not all, of the languages of the world.
If you say something, chances are that someone in the world has said something similar. Not only that, but with 30 trillion websites out there, chances are that someone has posted it on a website, said it on a forum, or Tweeted it.
So use Google itself to verify whether your Google Translate sentence is something that someone would actually say. The basic procedure:
- Go to Google Translate.
- Type in what you want to say and get the translation.
- Copy and paste the translation into Google itself and search for it.
If your sentence comes back in the search results, you know it’s a “legit” sentence.
The Finer Details
That’s the general idea, but in practice it’s a hair more complicated. You’re going to have to use some intuition and some of your knowledge of the language to make this work.
Let me give you an easy sentence that’s complicated to translate. I want to say in German, “How many hours of sleep do you need a night?”
I plug that sentence into Google Translate and get this:
You can go to your country’s Google default site, but just to bring the most relevant sites up first, I go to the German version: google.de.
I plug the translated sentence into Google. Also, I like to use quotation marks to return an exact string:
And I get no search results–Keine Ergebnisse.
Hmm. That’s what I suspected.
This is where you have to use your peanut. You can glance at the search results and see if you find something that looks right. Or you can just take out a chunk of the sentence and try that.
I try “Wie viele Stunden Schlaf” because “How many hours of sleep” by itself will get me on the right track.
By looking through search results, I find the pattern. So I plug in new sentences and check those against Google again.
I determine that I can say:
- Wie viele Stunden Schlaf brauchst du? – How many hours of sleep do you need? (informal)
- Wie viele Stunden Schlaf brauchen Sie? – How many hours of sleep do you need? (formal)
- Wie viele Stunden Schlaf braucht man? – How many hours of sleep does one need?
I also notice that you might be able to get away with putting a “pro Nacht” (nightly) or “täglich” (daily) at the end, but Germans tend to leave those adverbs off–probably because they’re implied by the rest of the sentence.
I know this method is a little complicated, and you probably don’t want to write a whole email or school report like this, going line by line.
Really, though, it’s more complicated to talk about than to actually do. It usually takes me about a minute or less to come up with the right sentence.
Is it cheating? I guess so, but only if you think of communication as a proctored exam. I consider this method to be more of a communication aid. And you still have to use quite a bit of your knowledge of the language to make this work. After all, it requires more effort than just using Google Translate.
This method is like using training wheels. If you pay close attention to why a translation was incorrect, you can even use this method to improve. Eventually you want to get to a point where you’re not having to check yourself against Google, just like you want to get to a point where you’re not having to check yourself against the answer key in a text book.
Also, the nice thing about language is its flexibility. If you’re good enough, you can absolutely say things that no one has ever said before and that isn’t anywhere on Google and still be communicating.
But until you get to that point, this is a good way to make sure other people can understand you.