Evaluating the Accuracy of Google Translate for Diabetes Education Material. Academic Article uri icon


  • BACKGROUND: Approximately 21% of the US population speaks a language other than English at home; many of these individuals cannot effectively communicate in English. Hispanic and Chinese Americans, in particular, are the two largest minority groups having low health literacy in the United States. Fortunately, machine-generated translations represent a novel tool that non-English speakers can use to receive and relay health education information when human interpreters are not available. OBJECTIVE: The purpose of this study was to evaluate the accuracy of the Google Translate website when translating health information from English to Spanish and English to Chinese. METHODS: The pamphlet, "You are the heart of your familytake care of it," is a health education sheet for diabetes patients that outlines six tips for behavior change. Two professional translators translated the original English sentences into Spanish and Chinese. We recruited 6 certified translators (3 Spanish and 3 Chinese) to conduct blinded evaluations of the following versions: (1) sentences translated by Google Translate, and (2) sentences translated by a professional human translator. Evaluators rated the sentences on four scales: fluency, adequacy, meaning, and severity. We performed descriptive analysis to examine differences between these two versions. RESULTS: Cronbach's alpha values exhibited high degrees of agreement on the rating outcome of both evaluator groups: .919 for the Spanish evaluators and .972 for the Chinese evaluators. The readability of the sentences in this study ranged from 2.8 to 9.0 (mean 5.4, SD 2.7). The correlation coefficients between the grade level and translation accuracy for all sentences translated by Google were negative (eg, rMeaning=-.660), which indicates that Google provided accurate translation for simple sentences. However, the likelihood of incorrect translation increased when the original English sentences required higher grade levels to comprehend. The Chinese human translator provided more accurate translation compared to Google. The Spanish human translator, on the other hand, did not provide a significantly better translation compared to Google. CONCLUSION: Google produced a more accurate translation from English to Spanish than English to Chinese. Some sentences translated by Google from English to Chinese exhibit the potential to result in delayed patient care. We recommend continuous training and credential practice standards for professional medical translators to enhance patient safety as well as providing health education information in multiple languages.

published proceedings

  • JMIR Diabetes

altmetric score

  • 1

author list (cited authors)

  • Chen, X., Acosta, S., & Barry, A. E.

citation count

  • 31

complete list of authors

  • Chen, Xuewei||Acosta, Sandra||Barry, Adam Etheridge

publication date

  • June 2016