Machine Translations for 2018 New Mobility Master Classes — (And other uses . . . with an invitation)

In the context of our 2018 online educational outreach program on New Mobility Master Classes – of which you can check out the initial work plan at and — we decided to look closely with the help of a handful of our colleagues working in different language environments at the potential for using Google Translate’s offer of immediate machine translation of your web site and with one click in to close to one hundred languages.

The reference providing the core text for the virtual classroom sessions — John Whitelegg’s excellent book Mobility A New Urban Design and Transport Planning Philosophy for a Sustainable Future. — which is available only in English. And since our website has more than five thousand registered readers signing in from an remarkable 149 countries over the last decade, it was clear that it would be a huge help for the outreach of the program if we were able to make good use of these translations. But are they sufficiently reliable to do this job? That is the question.

Map showing reader hits of World Streets over the last two weeks.

Since we have made fair use of machine translation in our own work for some years, with increasing satisfaction as the algorithms evolve, why not put it to work in our masetr classes?  So I started this little investigation with a generally hopeful/positive attitude about their potential usefulness.

But not trusting my own judgement in this case, I dropped a line to several of my bilingual colleagues in various corners of the world, pointed them to our draft website and the critical chapter on Mobility, Death and Injuries, and asked them what they thought of the usefulness of the translations in this particular case. I put it like this in my cover letter:

Thanks. It’s quite simple and here is how it works. First you click to and then top right column you will see the “Select Language” button. Choose your flavor.

Do you think you might want to have a quick look at it, and then tell me if the translation could be of any use at all to readers in your language group with a genuine interest in our topic? Or if it is only confusing and boring. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being perfection) where does this translation stand for the genuinely interested and prepared [language] reader?

Expert Commentaries

Thus far we have received four commentaries from our expert colleagues, which I would like to summarize here:


 I’ve checked the Google Translate version for the webpage. It is certainly not perfect but it gives Chinese readers who are not able or unwilling to read English an easy and free solution (for authors who like to reach out more non-English speakers, it is also a free solution). Personally, I would rather read the original content.

 I think If you can find some Chinese students (presumably they are everywhere nowadays, aren’t they?!), they can probably improving the Google translated version into proper Chinese. I would rate it at best as 5 out of 10 and think it can be 8 with some human touch.

  • Dr. Wayne Gao.  Ph.D. Public health innovations. Taiwan 


Unfortunately this was a close to zero experience. Much better to stick to the English version.

It is certainly understandable but the Google Swedish is cumbersome to read and most Swedes are used to English so ….

  • Peter Ekenger, International transport strategies adviser.  Lemmingebro, Sweden.



 In terms of language the French text is confusing and hard to sort out. The machine clearly has problems with more original choices of words and more complex sentence structure. If you read carefully ,and with some e-flexibility, you can get an idea about the topic being set out — if that is enough for the purposes of your readers. But it is a bumpy road with which in my view most readers will not be comfortable.

 From 1 to 10 I would say it’s 1. It definitely sucks for the genuinely interested and prepared. I think this kind of people would find reading the original text easier than the google translation.

  In any case, it’s a great piece of work. I could try, sooner or later, to translate it and make it available in Italian if you and John agree.

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Well that’s pretty unambiguous. My original idea of putting ready-to-go translations into the hands of eager students was overly optimistic. The software is simply not up to this level of task, yet.

This is what works at the present state of the translation arts, Google-wise. If authors of an original text will stick to simple declarative sentences, subject verb object, example “My dog is sick”, then this is machine-translate friendly. It becomes and without a drop of ambiguity . . .  Min hund är sjuk.  Meu cachorro está doente; 我的狗生病了.  मेरा कुत्ता बीमार है

And if one also adds to that conservative strategy sticking with vocabulary choices that are “standard English” and avoid neologisms, literary, social, technical or cult wink-wink words or jargon, then you just may have a friend

Final word:

Nothing monumental or informative in the recent offerings, but since machine translation can be so very useful it can be put to work by the flexible user from time to time to take the temperature of the water. And I personally will continue to turn to it when I have access to text in Chinese, Arabic, Russian, etc.  Because most of the time and if I am ready to do a bit of detective work, I am going to find some help there.

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About the author: 

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Educated as a development economist, Francis Eric Knight Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion, he is MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent non-profit advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, incomplete information, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities. In the autumn of 2018 he committed his life work to the challenges of countering climate change from GHG emissions from the transport sector. (For more see Britton online at, @ericbritton. email at and Skype: newmobility

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