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Recently, a court case was thrown out against Omar Cruz-Zamora, a Mexican native in the US on a legal visa, who was found with illegal narcotics in his car. The arresting officer, Ryan Wolting, had asked to search the vehicle, was granted permission, and subsequently found a stash of drugs. Open and shut, right? Not so much when you factor in that the perpetrator and police officer spoke different languages and relied on a basic machine translation platform to determine what was being said.

According to the original story by Gizmodo, Cruz-Zamora was pulled over in Kansas last September and when he asked Wolting if he spoke Spanish, which he didn’t, Wolting opted to use Google Translate to communicate. In many situations this would be seen as an innovative approach that provides a great solution to language barriers. However, when a situation revolves around the potential of sending someone to jail and impacting their life immensely, it’s important that communication be as clear and accurate as possible.

After Cruz-Zamora told the officer that he had several thousand dollars on him to purchase a car to then bring back to Mexico, Wolting asked to search the car. Rather, he asked Google Translate if he could search the car, which produced a less than accurate message according to the court:

Typed into Google Translate, “Can I search the car” translates to “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” When put in reverse order into Google Translate, “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” translates to “Can I find the car.” …while “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” is a literally correct interpretation, it is not the question [the officer] intended to ask defendant.

Ultimately, Wolting asked Cruz-Zamora if he could “find the car”, not “search the car”. This meant that technically he was never granted permission to search the vehicle and the recovery of illegal narcotics in the car was void.

In a world of ever-advancing technology and progressing artificial intelligence, many people and businesses are eager to leverage new tools. However, publicly available machine translation tools will always be in a state of beta of sorts – constantly being reevaluated, advanced, adjusted. Arle Lommel from Common Sense Advisory made a good point when he wrote, “The difference is that humans respond to context and can take steps to clarify, while MT by itself does not.” That simple distinction can mean the difference between a serious jail sentence and freedom, apparently.

Choose your translation needs wisely.