A recent U.S. District Court ruling highlights the danger of using Google Translate and similar machine translation tools.
In the wee hours of the morning of September 21, 2017, Trooper Ryan Wolting of the Kansas Highway Patrol pulled over Omar Cruz Zamora on Interstate 70 for driving a Hyundai Elantra with a suspended registration.
Wolting asked Cruz if he would come back to his patrol vehicle. Once in the patrol car, and having unsuccessfully attempted to identify Cruz with a fingerprint scanner, Wolting began using Google Translate on his laptop to communicate with Cruz; Cruz spoke very limited English, and Wolting did not speak Spanish. Wolting would type questions in English in Google Translate and would then show Cruz the Spanish translation on the screen.
Because of Google Translation’s inaccurate translation results, Mr. Cruz had difficulty understanding the trooper. When Wolting asked Cruz about his driver’s license, Cruz responded, “Do you have a driver for the license?”, apparently repeating the question he was reading on the screen and clearly puzzled.
At one point Cruz disclosed that he had $7,700 in cash in his car. Evidently, this arose Wolting’s suspicions; he used Google Translate to ask the question “Can I search the car?” or “Can I search your car?”, using two fingers to point to his eyes and then to Cruz’s car.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. This means that to search Mr. Cruz’s vehicle, Trooper Wolting would need either a search warrant or the consent of Mr. Cruz. According to Wolting, Cruz responded “yeah, yeah go”, upon which Wolting proceeded to search the Hyundai Elantra. Inside the vehicle, he found approximately 14 pounds of methamphetamine and cocaine, and Mr. Cruz found himself faced with a two-count federal indictment for possession with intent to distribute controlled substances.
Months later, Mr. Cruz – now a criminal defendant – filed a motion to suppress. If granted, the U.S. Attorney’s Office would not be able to use the drugs as evidence; in other words, they would have no case against him. The defense argued that the evidence was not obtained lawfully since the defendant had not consented to the search.
As it turns out, Google Translate renders the English phrase “Can I search the car?” as “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” in Spanish, which means “Can I look for the car?”. When I tried Google Translate myself, the result was similar – “¿Puedo buscar el coche?” – and had the same meaning. Either way, it was certainly not the intended question, and Mr. Cruz was confused why the trooper was asking for his permission to look for his car, which was parked a few feet ahead of them in plain view. Indeed, Mr. Cruz’s defense attorney argued in federal court that Mr. Cruz had not understood the question to be a request for consent to perform a search of the interior of his vehicle.
On June 4, 2018, the United States District Court for the District of Kansas ruled that the government had failed to meet its burden to show that Mr. Cruz’s consent was “unequivocal and specific and freely and intelligently given”. As a result, the Court granted Mr. Cruz’s motion to suppress.
What could Trooper Wolting have done? One option would have been to use a human interpreter. In fact, according to the ruling, Wolting “admitted a live translator would be more reliable”, but he “did not know that a live translator was available for his use” (USA v. Omar Cruz-Zamora).
About machine translation
As this case illustrates, machine translation is not a source for accurate, reliable translation. Machine translation is based on large numbers of previously used translations. However, Google Translate does not think like a human and cannot consider important factors such as context.
To avoid unintended legal consequences, the use of a professional interpreter (spoken language) or a translator (written language) is a must when accurate communication between two or more languages is needed.
The court ruling is available at https://ecf.ksd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2017cr40100-24.