Google Translate not yet ready for medical communications

Communications is key in any relationship, particularly that between patients and doctors.  So what happens when the two parties don't speak the same language? The first solution-of-choice is to use human interpreters, but they're not always available. In a new study published in the British Medical Journal Christmas Special, a tech savvy clinician and consultant team decided to turn to something that is always at our fingertips: Google Translate.

The team chose ten phrases often used by doctors in a clinical setting (see below) and translated them into 26 languages with Google Translate. The languages covered a wide variety of linguistic families, including 8 Western European, 5 Eastern European, 11 Asian, and 2 African. They then gave the translations to native speakers and asked them to translate the phrases back to English.

So how'd the algorithms do?

Not all that well. The machines rocked Western European language, clocking in at 74% correct. Eastern European languages followed at 62%, Asian at 46% and African languages trailing last at 45%. Since Google Translate uses brute force learning, this difference likely reflects the bias in the algorithms towards languages more commonly used in computing. The overall correct percentage for all languages was 57.7% for all phrases.

 *Table is from the paper – too good not the share!

*Table is from the paper – too good not the share!

If you've ever done the translate-translate back thing, you've probably stumbled across some seriously hilarious results (there're plenty on YouTube, including this one of "Let It Go"). In a medical setting, however, several rather grievous mistakes popped up.“Your husband has the opportunity to donate his organs” translated to “Your husband can donate his tools” in Polish [enter dirty joke here], while "Your child is fitting (For a procedure? Or in fit shape?)" turned into "Your child is dead" in Swahili, which would probably not bemuse the child's parents.

"In today’s world 'just Google it' is considered to be the answer to everything, but for health related questions this should be treated with caution." The authors concluded, Google Translate should not be used to for taking consent or patient interviews until all avenues to find human translators have been exhausted. Of course, the study didn't really test how well humans interpreters did on the fly, so the algorithms' performance might not have been all that bad compared to humans.

The study, while peer-reviewed, did forget to disclose some methodological designs. For one, each language only used a single human translator for the translation back to English but the study offered no details on their credentials. For another, while Google Translate may struggle with multi-word phrases, it may do decently for simpler – but no less important things – like "You hurt?". And finally a big part of human communication is non-verbal, so perhaps adding in some hand miming might get the message across.

On the side of caution though, it's probably better to stick to humans translators. For now.

Patil S, & Davies P (2014). Use of Google Translate in medical communication: evaluation of accuracy. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 349 PMID: 25512386

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