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Can't we just use Google Translate?

Google Translate is seemingly everywhere – on phones, I-pads, apps, laptops – everything that has an Internet connection. While the use of Google Translate and other online translation devices is growing, understanding of their limitations is not. Indeed, the assumption that online translation sites and apps are as accurate as their omnipresence is a fraught one and can have serious consequences, as a federal judge recently decided.

On October 1, 2021, a federal court ruled that Google Translate is not accurate enough for a police officer to use in asking a motorist to consent to a search of her car. In this particular case, the court even found some of the online translations to be “non-sensical.”


Although the court invalidated the defendant’s consent for police to search her car, the court upheld the search as not requiring consent because the police officer had probable cause to conduct a search without the driver’s agreement.

In the case of United States v. Ramirez-Mendoza, Case # 4:20-CR-00107, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, U.S. District Judge Brann decided:

“The Court is not convinced that Google Translate accurately translated Conrad’s request for consent into Spanish. The Government bears the burden of proof, but failed to introduce any evidence showing that the word “registrar” actually means “to search.”

Precision is important, particularly in this context, and the Court believes that more was needed to establish the accuracy of Google Translate…

It seems… that Google Translate was unable to adequately translate the word Ramirez-Mendoza used to describe her boyfriend’s occupation. The FBI linguist translated her as stating “trailer driver, ” but Google Translate interpreted this as “trailer.”

Google Translate produced several other Spanish-to-English mistranslations. One occurred when Conrad asked if Ramirez-Mendoza planned to drive back to California with her boyfriend. Google Translate interpreted her as responding “[b]ecause the one in New York goes Kentucky from fifth and leaves Texas.”

Another was when Ramirez-Mendoza’s answer to the question of what hotels she had stayed in was translated into English as “[d]on’t let and grab another one in Indiana . . . and the other-other hotel in Indiana.” A minor word-level mistranslation appears to have happened when Google Translate interpreted Ramirez-Mendoza as saying she planned to “mark” her boyfriend…

The app also produced several English-to-Spanish mistranslations. Though more difficult to capture without a verified transcript, these mistranslations are evidenced by instances where Ramirez-Mendoza gave strange answers in response to or needed clarifications of Conrad’s inquiries.

For instance, when asked “[w]here is the friend that owns the car?” she responded, “she is friend.” When asked the name of the car owner, Ramirez-Mendoza replied “[m]y friend.” Additionally, Conrad’s question asking if Ramirez-Mendoza had been “stopped by” the police was translated to “go by” the police.”

The findings continued, and we quote:

“Another factor, of particular importance here, is the existence of a language barrier.

An officer’s inability to converse with a suspect in a common tongue poses special problems where the officer attempts to solicit the suspect’s consent to a search. This is because difficulties in communication tend to make it harder to determine whether consent was actually provided, and if it was, whether it was voluntarily given.

Nevertheless, voluntary consent has been found where the evidence demonstrates that the suspect signed a foreign-language consent form, the suspect could speak or understand English, or the police officer could communicate reasonably well with the suspect in her native language…

While the transcript tends to prove that Ramirez-Mendoza knew that Conrad intended to search her car, the translation …. undercut[s] the Government’s case as the transcript shows that Google Translate revised Conrad’s question into a statement. As a statement that one “like[s] to search” is significantly more coercive than a request, this alone would not be enough to establish voluntary consent. The transcript thus presents strong evidence of coercion which would suggest that Ramirez-Mendoza felt unable to refuse given Conrad’s declaration…

The Court declines to infer that Google Translate accurately translated and communicated Conrad’s request to search Ramirez-Mendoza’s vehicle solely because it may work well generally.”

Indeed, the court went further. While finding that Google Translate is a “useful tool”, the court also concluded that the online translation service has “an alarming capacity for miscommunication and error.”

The court essentially consigned the use of Google Translate to facilitating “basic communication” while also not being an adequate method for more involved, linguistically complex conversations such as protecting the constitutional rights of a suspect or subject.

The court poignantly reasoned that Google Translate “need only fail once to obviate a suspect’s consent. As a result, the Court cannot hold that Google Translate is sufficiently reliable to presume its accuracy without further verification.”

One of the key takeaways from this case is that over reliance on Google Translate and similar products behind enabling “basic communication” between people speaking different languages is highly inadvisable. Such misuse can have significant consequences, resulting in substantial translation mistakes leading to regrettably predictable situations that flow from miscommunications and misunderstandings due to a language barrier.


Can my hospital use Google Translate?


Online translation sites, such as Google Translate, do not provide the requisite accuracy, confidentiality, or nuance needed to support patients in critical healthcare settings. In highly charged medical situations, however, physicians can feel as if they do not have another option. For example, if their designated phone interpreter service does not provide immediate access to speakers of the correct language or dialect. Fortunately, it does not have to be this way.

Healthcare Providers Are Obliged to Provide Interpretation Services, But ‘Online’ Translation Is Not the Answer

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), healthcare providers must provide translation and interpretation services to their patients and accompanying family members.


Failure to do so could result in fines, medical malpractice suits, and loss of federal funding. But the answer is not to turn to Google Translate.


Medical Communication Errors


Communication is the cornerstone of medicine, without which we cannot interact with our patients.1 The General Medical Council’s Good Medical Practice states that “Doctors must listen to patients, take account of their views, and respond honestly to their questions.”2 However, we still often interact with patients who do not speak the local language.

In Polish “Your husband has the opportunity to donate his organs” translated to “Your husband can donate his tools.” In Marathi “Your husband had a cardiac arrest” translated to “Your husband had an imprisonment of heart.” “Your wife needs to be ventilated” in Bengali translated to “Your wife wind movement needed.”

Google Translate has only 57.7% accuracy when used for medical phrase translations and should not be trusted for important medical communications.

~BMJ 2014;349:g7392

Discharge Instructions

Twenty volunteers evaluated 400 google translated discharge statements. Volunteers were 50% female and spoke Spanish (5), Armenian (2), Chinese (3), Tagalog (4), Korean (2), and Farsi (2). The overall meaning was retained for 82.5% (330/400) of the translations. Spanish had the highest accuracy rate (94%), followed by Tagalog (90%), Korean (82.5%), Chinese (81.7%), Farsi (67.5%), and Armenian (55%). Mean Likert scores (on a 5-point scale) were high for fluency (4.2), adequacy (4.4), meaning (4.3), and severity (4.3) but also varied.

GT for discharge instructions in the ED is inconsistent between languages and should not be relied on for patient instructions.

~Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, Sylmar, CA, USA

~Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY, USA

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