Tough Love: Saying “No” to Google Translate

 
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It was so temptingly easy. Just add the Google Translate widget to program registration forms and -- voila! -- families can automagically translate registration forms into any of more than a hundred languages. In fact, it seemed like such a no-brainer that we had our software engineers add the feature months ago and began our internal testing. Everyone was excited about solving this vexing translation problem for the thousands of schools and millions of families who use FamilyID.

As we started asking hard questions, a harsh reality became apparent.

Machine translation has come a long way. In recent years, Google Translate, in particular, has grown in sophistication and accessibility, expanding to more than 100 languages. But we are far from a world where Google Translate has reached parity with human translators.

The consequence of directing families to use the Google Translate widget to translate and complete registration forms would set up our company and our customers for serious problems.

Consider this: When your questions are translated by a machine, do you still know what you’re asking?

Google Translate can be helpful in a pinch to translate a phrase while traveling, or to pick up the overall gist of a document. It's not a substitute for knowing a language. Language is nuanced and rife with double meaning and ambiguity that can change according to the context of the sentence. In fact, machine translation can be wildly off-base and the results can be disastrous. One example is illustrated in a June 18, 2019 article by Rebecca Klar on the website "The Hill" regarding Google's mistranslation of Chinese during the Hong Kong protests.

A Google spokesman said in an email that ‘these automatic systems can sometimes make unintentional mistakes like translating a negative to a positive...Google Translate is an automatic translator, using patterns from millions of existing translations to help decide on the best translation for you,’ the spokesman added.

When Google translates a registration form, schools may no longer know what questions they are asking or if the translated versions accurately reflect the original meaning and intent. Translations that are correct one day may change the next as the algorithms and crowd-sourced input influences translations.

And will you understand the answers?

Registration forms are used to collect data. If the parent responds using one of the hundreds of languages presented, will program administrators, athletic directors, secretaries, nurses, and coaches understand the vital information on an emergency card if it’s written in Portuguese, Vietnamese, Somali...? Will the EMT responding to the emergency be able to read it?

Policies and agreements are a particularly thorny issue, as inaccurately translated legal agreements put schools under serious risk of liability. Once again the school may not know if the translated agreements reflect the original, and therefore what the parent is agreeing to.

Does using Google Translate violate Privacy Policies and Terms of Service?

Beyond the risk of inaccurate translations, using Google Translate on FamilyID could potentially compromise data and violate FamilyID’s Privacy Policy and Terms of Service

When a family creates a FamilyID account, they enter into an independent agreement with FamilyID that gives the family user full rights to and ownership of their data, in accordance with FERPA, including the ability to retain or remove their data from the platform. There is no selling, renting or using the data for marketing purposes. 

Using Google Translate on our site would subject the information to Google’s policies, overriding and potentially violating our own Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, not to mention the very critical student data privacy policies of schools. Many people around the world use Google Translate daily but very few are aware of what they’re agreeing to when doing so. According to Google's Terms of Service, once a family has submitted information through Google, the company takes a significantly different approach than FamilyID. 

 The following is excerpted from Google’s Terms of Service as of June 24, 2019:

When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones. This license continues even if you stop using our Services (for example, for a business listing you have added to Google Maps).

In other words, Google has a lot of leeway when it comes to information that passes through its services and the families that use Google Translate would have no way to know that their data is subject to Google’s terms.

So, is sensitive family information still confidential when a website uses Google Translate to process information that your school is requiring? Based on what's described in Google’s terms for handling content, it may not be.

As we grapple with a responsible way to help our schools support their community’s multilingual needs, we made a tough but deliberate decision to say “no” to enabling Google Translate. Promoting the use of Google Translate for families to make un-reviewed, un-verified translated versions of school forms would be an unconscionable dereliction of our duties to our valued customers, and a violation of both the letter and spirit of our promise to all users.

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. And it appears that Google agrees.

Google recently discontinued its Google Translate for Websites widget, the software code that developers embed into websites to enable Google Translate. That means no new users can sign up and current users may wake up one day to find that their site no longer has Google Translate. This was partly due to the inaccurate nature of the translations.

 
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Beyond inaccurate translation results, according to an article published by Argo Translation, industry experts believe the Google Translate widget was deprecated for a variety of reasons, including:

"Abuse of the terms of use for the API – The intended use of the API was to provide translation into environments where the content would be refined, improved and help to train the machine translation engine. This workflow would have produced higher quality translated content to strengthen Google’s search business. Unfortunately, many companies are using the API as a commercial service for a charge and provided no improvement to the content.

Contaminating indexed content – the power of Google Translate came from having an almost infinite amount of human-translated content indexed and available as the basis for handling the machine translation. But when users propagate machine translation with no human improvement, the pool of material used to train the MT engine is polluted with inaccurate translation causing a downward spiral in the quality of the database."

Google Translate can be an effective starting point for translation. But at the end of the day, schools are responsible for the content they publish and that requires using real humans to ensure that the program registration forms and critical policies and agreements are accurate in the languages the school chooses to support.

Tough Love is Real Love

It’s distressing when we see companies peddling this quick-fix without regard to the downstream consequences to schools and families. Particularly since Google clearly recognized flaws so crucial they were willing to pull the plug on a seemingly successful technology.

Saying “no” is hard, but doing what’s in the best interest of our schools and families is our commitment and responsibility.

We are quite literally back to the drawing board, and I personally invite you to help us collaborate on a solution that we can all say “yes” to. In any language.

Many thanks,

 
 
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Rochelle Nemrow
Founder & CEO, FamilyID Inc.