Google Translate is the king of online translation on the fly. Google has invested a lot into perfecting its machine learning algorithms and vocabulary databases to return strong translations in the world’s most prolific tongues (English, Spanish, French, Mandarin, Russian, etc.), creating a 90-language strong polyglot machine. All things considered, one could expect that Google would have the 90 most widely-spoken languages in the world — but that isn’t the case.
Europe and India are pretty well-covered, but Africa and China are the biggest gaps in Google’s linguistic arsenal. Here are 10 languages Google Translate does not offer and where you can find them.
As someone who just came back from Hong Kong and is an ever-aspiring omniglot, I’ve found the mass confusion over simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese to be blistering. These are scripts, not languages. When people talk about the two forms of written Chinese characters, they confuse them with Mandarin and Cantonese. Traditional Chinese script is still used in Mandarin-speaking Taiwan, so don’t trust the traditional Chinese translation on Google to get you through a conversation in Hong Kong.
In the meantime, there are a few apps that can help you out: SayHiTranslate is one of them. The next big one is iTranslate Voice. Apps that might help you out are the Learn Cantonese Phrasebook, FREE Cantonese by NEMO and Cantonese slang on your move.
All the major open translation services are behind on this one, though Google Translate announced in February 2015 it was going to make an effort to get the language up and running. The is the message one Redditor received last year:
“If you want to help get Cantonese added to Google Translate, join the Google Translate Community. They need some help translating some texts, rating, and correcting translation from English to Cantonese and from Cantonese to English.”
Pashto is spoken by about 40 million people in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is the primary language of the Pashtun ethnic group, which dominates Afghanistan. Still, there is no major service that has the language. It’s not a language of great economic importance right now, but is essential in the security field.
If you live in Ethiopia, there are several prominent languages, such as Tigrinya and Tigre. Amharic, however, receives more international attention because a large diaspora speaks the language in Israel, and it’s the most common African language in California. Fully 22 million people speak the language, but it’s also a great example of Google needing to catch up with African audiences trying to express themselves by translation into English.
4-6. Russian languages:
Kyrgyz, Tatar and Bashkir by Yandex Translate
The Russian search engine Yandex has a few languages pinned down that are relevant to its users. One of them is Tatar with about 6.5 million speakers spoken mostly in the Russian state of Tatarstan and about half a million in Crimea, the southern Ukrainian island that Russian reannexed two years ago. Former Soviet Republic Kyrgyzstan can also find its state language, Kyrgyz (4.3 million), on Yandex Translate. Bashkir only has only 1.2 million speakers, but Yandex has them covered, too.
7-8. Native American Languages: Mayan and Querétaro Otomi by Microsoft Translator
Mayan is a 790,000-strong native language to Mexico, the most dominant of the 32 catalogued Mayan languages. To differentiate it from the other languages, linguists tend to say the language is Yucatec Mayan, but speakers rarely call it this way. Two other Mayan languages match its speaker numbers: Q’eqchi’ (800,000), K’iche’ (2.3 million).
Querétaro Otomi is hardly the most prominent language in the world, but for the 33,000 or so speakers in central Mexico, it’s an appreciated project by Microsoft Translator. The global effort to catalogue endangered languages will benefit greatly from technology. Various Native American languages throughout the Americas still have a few thousand speakers apiece whose source material can be added to services like Microsoft Translator to help enthusiastic learners or preservationists streamline the learning process. Google Translate has yet to get any American languages on its catalogue. It’s big brother, Mezquital Otomi, is spoken by 100,000.
9-10. Fictional languages: Klingon and Elvish (Sindarin)
If you wanted to find some of the most developed, fiction-based languages in the world, you won’t on Google Translate. The closest you’ll get is the linguistic geek language Esperanto, but nothing the likes of which Star Trek and Lord of the Rings fans would want.
But Google’s two biggest competitors can answer that call. Microsoft Translator offers Klingon translation in both Klingon script and Latin letters. Yandex Translate, the popular Russian service, recently made headlines by adding the Elvish dialect of Sindarin to its repertoire.
And of course, as you pine for more sources in your ancestral Klingonese tongue, let Rosetta Stone tease you with its April Fool’s prank from 2014.
Update: Google Translate announced on February 17, 2016 (nine days after this article was published) that it was adding Amharic, Pashto and Kyrgyz to its offerings. To get the full details, click here.