Why You Should Not Rely on Machine Translation

As fun as machine translation tools like Google Translate can be, it is important not to rely on them if you require translation for something important, like a book. I have just finished reading The Quest for Anna Klein by Thomas H. Cook. It is an excellent book, aside from a few unbelievable plot turns and a character who turns out to be rather pointless. Towards the end of the book, there are some Russian words and phrases (rendered properly in Cyrillic, no less). Unfortunately, the translations of these words are not all accurate.

When one of the characters receives a note that a person he is seeking has been found, the note says, in Russian, основывать. This is obvious machine translation because the verb основывать/основать in Russian means to found in the sense of founding a city, for example, not in the sense of finding something one is looking for.

The book is published by a large publishing house (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Why did someone not make the effort to hire a professional translator for this?


4 thoughts on “Why You Should Not Rely on Machine Translation

  1. Online translation tools are only useful if you want to get a good laugh. It’s especially obvious when you try to translate “strange” languages, such as Finnish or Hungarian. The translations usually don’t make any sense whatsoever, because the grammar is completely wrong.


  2. Dear Fluent Historian:

    I am Thomas H. Cook, the author of THE QUEST FOR ANNA KLEIN, and I want to thank you for pointing out the translation error in my book. I am not a Russian speaker, and, as you discovered, I relied on a machine translation for the few phrases in Russian that were required by the book. I had thought these would be fact-checked, but evidently they were not. I can read Spanish and can get by in French, and I often notice these kinds of errors in books, even when we are dealing with these less than obscure languages.

    Anyway, thank you again. In future, I will make a huge point of having any language I don’t know thoroughly checked.

    Best wishes,


    1. Tom, thanks very much for your comment. I loved your book. If you ever need any Russian fact-checking, don’t hesitate to contact me.



  3. Dear Natalie:

    Thank you so much for your kind words about my book.

    Speaking of Russian, or at least Russia, I am going to Moscow, St.Petersburg, and finally, to Magadan, in Siberia, next year. It is for a travel book about going to “the saddest places on earth,” which I am doing for my English publisher. I’d love to have any insights into the best way to travel through Russia, whether guides are required, how they might be obtained. I am only now in the planning stages for this trip, so any advice would be appreciated. Of course, this may be way out of your line. Have yo gone to Russia? My email is cityrain@comcast.net if you have any advice to give me.


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