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Google Uses English as a “Pivot Language”

By Barbara McClintock, C. Tr.

Frédéric Kaplan, a professor of digital humanities at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, has coined the expression pivot language. By using English as a pivot or intermediate language to translate word for word, Google Translate’s search engine may influence not only target language translations, but the target languages themselves with English word order and turns of phrases. According to Kaplan, if you use Google to translate from French (A) to Italian (B), for example, the algorithm adds an extra step, passing through English first. Thus, in this case, Google translates from French (A) to English and then from English (pivot) to Italian (B). Frédéric Kaplan is interested in the linguistic consequences of using Google algorithms. He says that idioms cause particular problems because they are linguistic inventions (very different from one language to another). This leads Google Translate to provide nonsensical translations that are perpetuated by transfer to the Internet, e.g., Il pleut des cordes is first translated into English (It’s raining cats and dogs) and then translated literally into Italian as piove canni e gatti. This is another reason why it is risky for non-professionals to use Google Translate.


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