Phasile, feyilile? Google’s Zulu translator tested

With news that Google has now added Zulu, South Africa’s most-spoken language, to its online translation tool, it’s only fair that it be put to the test. Online translation tools are very useful, but often they lack the savvy of a human translator. For instance, common English phrases are often translated literally, and asking a German waiter to “add a dash of speed” (in German) to your order order might not be met with a smile.

That said, Google Translate has some fuzzy logic and can infer what its human operators are trying to say, even when they use colloquial phrases and slang. To see how it fairs with its newest addition, Zulu, we threw some common questions at it. The kind that foreign visitors might want to try out if they visited South Africa and got into the spirit of ubuntu.


Well, we’re not off to a good start here. Zulu only has one traditional greeting: sawubona. Granted, Google does give that as the translation when typing in “hello”, but the fact that other greetings aren’t also translated is a bit poor.



After making a shambles of your greeting, you can at least introduce yourself correctly. So far, so good.



And being polite, asking the other party for their name, will also leave you looking like an A+ Zulu student.



The time is embarrassing o’clock for anybody who uses this translation. The correct way to ask for the time is “Sithini iskhati?” – a whole word wrong; bad Google leaves us with the far more philosophical question, ‘What is time’?



This is very correct, according to the official Zulu translator here at At least now you’ll be going places.



But you won’t be eating anytime soon. This phrase is wrong because it’s just a… senseless jumble. Simply say, “Ngilambile, ngingakuthola kuphi ukudla,” is the correct Zulu – literally, “I’m hungry, where can I find food.”



A complex sentence, perhaps something a polite foreigner might attempt – but it’s tragically wrong. The first two words are fine, but after that it’s Wrongsville, population: you. Instead, say “Ngicela ungitshele ukuthi isiteshi samaphoyisa sikuphi?”.



But if you keep things simple for Google, it gives the correct translation. Phrasebooks also use this technique, substituting complex sentences with simple ones, for accuracy and understanding.



This is a case of literal interpretation gone wrong. This doesn’t ask for an item’s price, it asks for a costing.



But keeping it simple works. Though this English question is perhaps not the most elegant way to ask for the price of something, and technically it is grammatically incorrect.



100% correct. So you’ll get a taxi to a hotel, and at least report crime to the police, if you rely on Google Translate.



And when you get to the hotel you’ll be promptly offered assistance when using this Zulu phrase.



Good luck paying for anything, though. This could pass, but it’s grammatically incorrect – the right word is “Ngingayitholaphi”.



Here you’re literally asking “Where are the people from outside?”. The Zulu word for toilet is actually “indlu yangasese” (literal: outside house, or outhouse), but this translation excludes the “house” part. Better hope there are trees outside.



Should you be in town for Madiba’s funeral, you’ll need a better translation. Instead, try “Ungangitshela ukuthi iPark and Ride yomngcwabo waNelson Mandela ikuphi?”

failOverall, Google doesn’t do too well in this first test. Seven out of eight, with answers varying from completely wrong to almost right. Many of the translations see Google’s translation engine struggling with the literal nature of Zulu. Speakers of the African language rely a lot on context, and often have literal terms for certain objects (see: toilet, outside house).

Over time, though, this will get better. The European languages on Google Translate have a good pass rate, sometimes even correctly translating slang terms. This is due to Google working with native speakers on improving things. It’s also possible for fluent speakers to contribute to Google Translate by volunteering their time and knowledge. Alternatively, when an incorrect translation is spotted a correction can be suggested on the results page. writer Lungelo Shezi contributed to this feature, assisting with the correct Zulu translations. She was born in Kwazulu Natal, and is fluent in English, Afrikaans, and Zulu – but not sign language.


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