Randall García and his wife were on a bus in the Russian city of Samara when a local resident stared at the couple and pointed his phone at them. The screen read: “Good luck Costa Rica!”
Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Neymar may be the stars of the World Cup. But Google Translate has been the Most Valuable Player for many fans to leap over the language barrier in Russia. They have used the mobile app version to order food, change money and meet new people, especially in cities like Samara, where most people only speak Russian.
“Google Translate has been a fundamental tool,” García said, wearing the red shirt of Costa Rica’s national team. “In a country where people are going out of their way to try to understand us, it’s key,” he said. “We thought there was going to be a language barrier, but it wasn’t like that.”
Before hundreds of thousands of fans descended on Russia, many of them studied phrases or took lessons to learn the basics of the language and the Cyrillic alphabet in time for the tournament that kicked off on June 14.
“It’s really hard, My partner has been learning a little bit of Russian, but other than that we use Google Translate,” said Ruth Morris from Queensland, Australia. She wore a yellow t-shirt in the colours of the national team emblazoned with green kangaroos that read: “Aussie, Aussie Aussie! Oi, Oi, Oi!”
The day that she arrived to Moscow with her husband, they struck up conversation with a group of local residents at a bar.
“We managed to communicate and make friends using a mix of Google Translate, sign language and – piba!” Brian Mckinley said, using the Russian word for beer.
These days, one scene has been repeated thousands of times in cities across Russia: a person types a sentence on a phone or taps into the microphone and waits until the other one reads it or hears the words, nods, and responds.
“In many ways Google Translate is remarkable. If your intent is to have basic straightforward communication, then Google Translate can serve you adequately,” said Andrew Cohen, professor emeritus in second language studies from the University of Minnesota.
Cohen has been using Google translate to assist him with Mandarin Chinese, his 13th language. But he said the offerings are sometimes wrong.
“There are several reasons for this: One is that GT does not have a brain and so it really cannot deal effectively with connotations of word meanings, nor with various collocations of words with other words,” he said. Then, there’s the issue of pragmatics, since it can’t interpret the intentions of the person trying to communicate.
It “may have considerable difficulty translating humour, sarcasm, subtle forms of criticism, curses, apologies so that they work, even requests in a way that they are appropriately mitigated rather than bossy sounding,” he said. “This is where Google Translate still has lots of work to do.”
Translate was launched in 2006 and has grown into one of Google’s most popular services with more than 500 million monthly users and more than 100 billion words translated each day, according to the company.
Russian is one of the most used out of more than 100 languages that range from Afrikaans to Yiddish. They can be used on websites, with speech recognition and as an app on mobile phones, even if there is no connection. Others use one of its features to recogniae and translate the writing on billboards, menus and street signs.
“The Russian Cyrillic is unlike any word in our alphabet,” said Marilyn Mattos, 30, a Colombian fan who wore earrings in the yellow, blue and red colours of the national flag. “But we used Google Translator to take pictures, select the text and translate it into Spanish without a problem.”
It has even been used to break the ice between journalists and players. During a recent press conference with Antoine Griezmann that only allowed questions in French, a Spanish journalist put the microphone on his phone and used Google Translate to ask a question, drawing a wide grin from the French striker who plays professionally in Madrid and speaks Spanish.