Google Translate Flunks in Court.

Devin Coldewey reports for Techcrunch on an interesting legal ruling in the case of Omar Cruz-Zamora, who was pulled over by cops in Kansas and found to be in possession of drugs:

Cruz-Zamora doesn’t speak English well, so the consent to search the car was obtained via an exchange facilitated by Google Translate — an exchange that the court found was insufficiently accurate to constitute consent given “freely and intelligently.” […]

For example, the officer asked “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” — the literal meaning of which is closer to “can I find the car,” not “can I search the car.” (Note: these translations were what were put forth in the case, not my own — I don’t speak Spanish. As commenters below note, it’s more like “can I search for the car,” which is very different.) There’s no evidence that Cruz-Zamora made the connection between this “literal but nonsensical” translation and the real question of whether he consented to a search, let alone whether he understood that he had a choice at all.

With consent invalidated, the search of the car is rendered unconstitutional, and the charges against Cruz-Zamora are suppressed. […]

Providers of machine translation services would have us all believe that those translations are accurate enough to use in most cases, and that in a few years they will replace human translators in all but the most demanding situations. This case suggests that machine translation can fail even the most basic tests, and as long as that possibility remains, we have to maintain a healthy skepticism.

I’m not qualified to comment on the legal issues, but as Languagehat I thoroughly approve of the decision from a linguistic point of view, and of Coldewey’s insistence on the need for “a healthy skepticism.” Thanks, Kobi!

Comments

  1. “Providers of machine translation services would have us all believe that those translations are accurate enough to use in most cases” — Who ever actually says that?

    Okay I guess Amazon says the following, which isn’t explicit but could be read to imply the result won’t suck.

    “By adding real-time translation to chat, email, helpdesk, and ticketing applications, an English-speaking agent or employee can communicate with customers across multiple languages.”

    I personally assume that “bad, but not completely unusable” is what companies will be aiming for in their customer support, so this wouldn’t say good to me.

  2. SFReader says:

    Bailiff: You are hereby charged that on the 28th day of May, 1970, you did willfully, unlawfully, and with malice of forethought, publish an alleged English-Hungarian phrase book with intent to cause a breach of the peace. How do you plead?

  3. David Marjanović says:

    Yeah, the English situation with look for, seek, search and search for is pretty unique and presents exactly the challenges machine translation does worst at, AFAIK.

  4. SFReader: I would plead “If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?”

  5. BTW Did the Python sketch really say “of forethought” rather than “aforethought”?

    Tut! Tut! An them being Oxbridge Men!

  6. Bailiff: You are hereby charged that on the 28th day of May, 1970, you did willfully, unlawfully, and with malice of forethought, publish an alleged English-Hungarian phrase book with intent to cause a breach of the peace. How do you plead?

    I laughed!

  7. This sounds like an odd decision. Say you flip it around: you’re driving in Mexico, you’re pulled over by the police, and – since you cannot speak Spanish – the officer tries his best in English and asks you “can I search for your car?” You say yes and he searches your car.
    Could you really argue that you did not understand what he was asking and that the search was therefore conducted without your permission?

    I suppose that the counter-argument is that he had a car full of meth and cocaine, and so it is inherently unlikely that he would have given permission! But stranger things do happen. I still treasure the story of the Florida customs officer who saw a man unloading a lot of large packages from his yacht and asked “what have you got in there?” to which the man replied “Cocaine”. And indeed it was, and he went to prison.

  8. You can’t flip it around because Mexican laws are totally different. Also, I’d really rather not get into whether the US laws, as presently constitutionally interpreted, are a Good Thing, because people have strong opinions and it’s far from the concerns of LH.

  9. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    Just a cautionary note that this isn’t the last word. It’s a district court case and it still can be appealed, and it’s not clear what the result will be. The decision cited a Texas case that went the other way on almost the same facts.

  10. You can’t flip it around because Mexican laws are totally different.

    That’s beside the point.
    The point I’m making is that there must be some level of imperfectly translated speech that still counts as comprehensible for legal purposes. If the police officer had said “May I search your car” and it had been translated into “The queen will denigrate your buffalo”, then fair enough. But the Spanish translation quoted sounds, while wrong, close enough to be comprehensible, given the context (a policeman is standing there, having pulled you over, gesturing at your car).

    Or if someone with imperfect English had put a sign on a workshop door reading “NOT FOR ENTRY! IS DANGER!”, and you walked in there, got injured, and sued, on the grounds that he hadn’t given you proper warning…

  11. The point I’m making is that there must be some level of imperfectly translated speech that still counts as comprehensible for legal purposes.

    Yes, and that level is decided by the courts.

  12. SFReader says:

    There was a case of Japanese tourist in America who was shot dead by an American homeowner, because he didn’t understand what “Freeze!” meant in this context.

    I was told that afterwards they passed a law which obliged all publishers of English phrasebooks in Japan to include this word.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    I would be surprised if the gov’t doesn’t appeal, and who knows what will happen there. One can imagine appellate judges understanding the limitations of google translate and thinking that for a formal in-court hearing (e.g. a guilty plea where it is important to make a clear record that the defendant is knowingly and voluntarily waiving various rights) you can’t get by without a competent/certified live-human translator, but also thinking that one should be more pragmatic and understanding in terms of the resources readily available to individual police officers making highway stops at 3 am. OTOH, it seems like it wouldn’t be that hard to give police officers little phrasebooks-or-the-equivalent with gramatically-and-idiomatically accurate Spanish phrases that might come up routinely in police interaction with LEP Hispanophones, including e.g. Miranda warnings and commonly-asked questions like “may I search your vehicle”? In the early days after the Miranda decision when the new rules of engagement had not yet been fully internalized by many policemen, some departments distributed wallet-sized cards with an exact lawyer-blessed script (in English) for arresting officers to read to arrestees, to reduce the odds they’d screw up in a way that would cause problems for the prosecutors later.

    That the case landed in front of the first-and-only ethnically-Hispanic federal district judge in the history of Kansas (born in Kansas to parents who had immigrated from Mexico, says his bio on wikipedia) is an interesting coincidence. Obviously one likes to hope that any judge will be equally fair-minded in deciding the issues presented regardless of personal background, but an immigrant-family background might lead to greater sensitivity to the ways in which attempted communication across linguistic barriers can go awry even when people are trying their best.

  14. Stu Clayton says:

    GT be damned, I want to know how “search the car” is expressed in Spanish. It’s obvious to me that “buscar el auto” is wrong – because that means “search for the car” – but what to say instead ?

    Spanish internet sites make it abundantly clear that searching a person’s person for something, frisking, is “cachear”, and a frisk is a “cacheo”. I can’t make out if that is also used for frisking cars.

  15. My impression (although I have no quantitative data) is that that the grammar of English search is quite atypical. It takes as it’s direct object the are to be searched, while in most languages (even with obvious cognates, such as German suchen), the direct object is what is being separated for. (Although I seem to recall hearing that in some German dialects, suchen can be ditransitive. Perhaps a Marjanovic can weigh in on that point.)

  16. ¿La policía puede buscar en mi vehículo sin una orden de registro? … Si la policía registra su automóvil sin una orden, sin su permiso o sin un motivo válido, está violando sus derechos constitucionales… Source

  17. Stu Clayton says:

    I seem to recall hearing that in some German dialects, suchen can be ditransitive.

    That’s standard German. Er suchte sich eine Frau is an example. The “sich” here is in the dative. The statement is semantically equivalent to Er suchte für sich eine Frau.

    You know that “sich” is in the dative, because suchte sich with accusative “sich”, as the object of the search, makes no immediate sense. “He searched for himself in the neighborhood” – what would that mean ? Only in a woozy new-age metaphorical sense would you say “He searched for himself” [period], as if saying “He searched for a sense of who he really is” or similar nonsense.

  18. GT be damned, I want to know how “search the car” is expressed in Spanish.

    Some poking around on the Internet suggests that both the verbs registrar and revisar (el coche / el auto) are widely used in this context.

  19. Stu Clayton says:

    Someone commented above with an internet example of “buscar en mi vehículo”, then deleted the comment. Or rather the comment vanished, for reasons known only to Hat’s software.

  20. The German translation for “search the car” is das Auto durchsuchen, i.e. a specific prefixed form of “suchen” is used.

  21. I wish I could have used this excuse while living in Germany.

    While the Google translations are fine for daily conversations, they are essentially meaningless for legal contracts and similar documents. Even most of the native German speakers I knew couldn’t translate them in a way that made sense in English.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    Stu: Someone commented above with an internet example of “buscar en mi vehículo”, then deleted the comment

    Finding an example on the internet does not mean that the person writing it was a native or quasi-native speaker or used the example with the intended meaning. The comment may have been deleted because it was not quite relevant.

    Perhaps “buscar en mi vehículo” could refer not to searching (an act implying thoroughness) but to looking for something which was not hidden deliberately but may have fallen under a seat, for instance.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    (even with obvious cognates, such as German suchen)

    That’s a cognate of seek (minus umlaut for reasons unknown to me), not of search.

    Although I seem to recall hearing that in some German dialects, suchen can be ditransitive. Perhaps a Marjanovic can weigh in on that point.

    What Stu and Hans said – though there are dialects that happen to merge the dative and the accusative in various ways.

  24. This kind of vocabulary is quite specific, hardly the everyday phrases that you would expect many foreigners to understand. If you watch a lot of police dramas, they are very familiar of course, but they are hardly among the most popular phrases for learners.

    In Swedish it’s similar to German – söka igenom bilen. To search through the car, basically. Söka is look for. Similar to one of the commenters on the article at the link, I would assume that söka bilen would mean to look the car up in a database or something.

    That being said, I’ve not seen the search the car situation in many Swedish police dramas. Maybe I watch too few of them?

  25. Gathering what has been posted so far and checking a dictionary, my impression so far is that while in English, “to search the car” and “to search for the car” are close to each other, Spanish uses different verbs for both concepts (“registrar / cachear” for the former, “buscar” for the latter), so GT clearly chose the wrong verb, and while one can argue “but the concepts are so close! The difference is only in a little preposition” from an English point of view, the designations are not close to each other in Spanish. Whether the defendant ought to have made the conceptual leap based on the overall situation is a different matter; it seems clear to me that this leap is bigger for a Spanish speaker than an English speaker (or for a speaker of German or Russian, who at least use the same base verb for both concepts, with the “search for” meaning using a simplex verb (suchen / искать) and the “search” meaning using a prefixed form (durchsuchen / обыскать).

  26. dainichi says:

    > Whether the defendant ought to have made the conceptual leap based on the overall situation is a different matter

    If a police officer asked me if he could search “for” my car when he’s standing right next to it (and I couldn’t make the conceptual leap), my reaction would be “What???”, not “Sure, it doesn’t make sense, but sure”. Once the officer started searching the car, he must have realized what the officer meant. Could he have legally withdrawn his consent then?

    > the literal meaning of which is closer to “can I find the car,” not “can I search the car.”

    My Spanish is rusty, but as far as I remember, “buscar” can be used in the sense of “pick up” or “get” without much searching necessarily needed, not sure how that adds to the equation.

    Different languages have different ways to express resultativeness and subtly different criteria for using them, e.g. Mandarin 找 zhǎo “search” + resultative complement 到 dào = 找到 zhǎodào “find”. In Japanese, I sometimes hear people say 探せない /sagasenai/ “can’t search” to mean what I prefer to express as 見つけられない /mitsukerarenai/ “can’t find”. I believe it might be a western Japanese thing, but don’t have any sources.

  27. The Spanish for ‘searching’ is “mirando”, as in “Mirando vs Arizona”

  28. Heh. (For those not familiar with US constitutional history, that’s a joke based on the famous case Miranda v. Arizona, in which the Supreme Court ruled that detained criminal suspects, prior to police questioning, must be informed of their constitutional right to an attorney and against self-incrimination.)

  29. marie-lucie says:

    French: ‘to look for, search for’ = ‘try to find’ chercher
    ‘to search’ fouiller (lit. ‘to dig’)

  30. SFReader says:

    We’ve been familiar with the concept since https://youtu.be/Bol0o4kQjIs

  31. Stephen Carlson says:

    As of today, Google translate for “Can I search the car?” (still) is “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” Deepl’s translation of the same is “¿Puedo registrar el coche?”

  32. Stu Clayton says:

    marie-lucie, can’t venir chercher also mean “pick up” or “meet” in certain expressions ? Je vais venir vous chercher à dix heures et demie = “I’ll pick you up/come get you at 10:30”.

  33. quaelegit says:

    @Stu — there’s also some semantic overlap in English (though I don’t know if the same overlap applies to the French meanings/words). As a way of agreeing to meet someone at a specific time, I often say “I’ll look for you at .” ( Especially if it’s a large/crowded location and I want to confirm a specific place to meet: “Look for me outside Sephora at 2pm” so you know where in a large mall to meet me.)

  34. Bill Boyd says:

    When entering Mexico from the U.S., Customs officers search the luggage then slap on a “revisado” sticker.

  35. marie-lucie says:

    Stu: can’t venir chercher also mean “pick up” or “meet” in certain expressions ? Je vais venir vous chercher à dix heures et demie = “I’ll pick you up/come get you at 10:30”.

    You are right. You can also use aller chercher to mean “to go get, go pick up”, as in Je dois aller chercher les enfants chez leur grand-mère “I have to go get/pick up the children at their grandmother’s”.

    With both phrases you can come or go pick up/get/retrieve both persons and things, like a package at the post office, your car at the garage, and so on. It is not so much “meet” which implies a more equal division of responsibility between two persons or groups (and never an object unless that object is a bus, plane etc which can be conceived as self-directed).

  36. Lars (the original one) says:

    ring, curve, range, search — *ker-

  37. aller /venir chercher

    Finnish hakea is like that, besides being a loanword from Germanic (seek, söka, etc).

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