As anyone who has ever struggled in a foreign language class can attest, Google Translate can be quite helpful for gaining a surface-level understanding of a phrase or sentence. Try using Google Translate to actually write or communicate, however, and you’ll quickly learn that it gives very literal interpretations regardless of context, dialect, or even common sense. This was the issue at the heart in the case of the United States of America V. Omar Cruz-Zamora.
Cruz-Zamora was pulled over by a member of the Kansas Highway Patrol due to a suspended registration on September 21, 2017. When the officer approached the car, he quickly learned that Cruz-Zamora did not speak very much English, though the defendant was able to prove his legal status.
The officer, Ryan Wolting, didn’t speak Spanish any more than Omaz-Cruz could speak English, so he relied on Google Translate to facilitate the conversations. Upon learning that Omaz-Cruz was carrying a substantial amount of cash, Wolting used Google Translate to obtain permission to search Omaz-Cruz’s car. During the course of the search, Wolting found a large amount of cocaine and meth. He subsequently arrested Omaz-Cruz and charged him with intent to distribute a controlled substance.
At the hearing, the defendant argued that he had not given his consent because he could not understand the officer’s questions. The court brought in two different experts to help resolve this issue. Both professional interpreters cautioned that Google Translate was not nuanced enough to facilitate a full conversation between two people. For example, if you type “Can I search the car?” into Google Translate and ask for a Spanish translation, you’ll get “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” which is technically accurate. But if you type “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” and ask for an English translation, you’ll get “Can I find the car?”
The judge ultimately ruled in the favor of Omaz-Cruz due to the fact that the court’s interpreters said that Google Translate provided inaccurate translations — and it was questionable whether the defendant truly consented to the search.
In short, if it isn’t good enough for your high school Spanish class, it probably isn’t good enough for the courts. Of course, Google is working to improve the quality of its translations so that may change one day.