Picture of trialling English-to-Zulu service on Google Translate

The English-to-Zulu translation has been criticised for containing errors

Google Translate now offers Zulu as part of new African language service

As Google Translate encourages fluent Zulu, Hausa, Igbo, Somali and Yoruba speakers to evaluate its new services, TheSouthAfrican.com looks at how reliable the Zulu translations are.

Picture of trialling English-to-Zulu service on Google Translate

The English-to-Zulu translation has been criticised for containing errors


SEARCH engine giant Google is calling on fluent Zulu speakers to test out a new language service on Google Translate.

The new translation services for the African languages Zulu, Hausa, Igbo, Somali and Yoruba are being trialled by Google in the hope that they can be added to the 71 languages already supported by the translation engine.

As Google Translate currently supports Afrikaans, two of the 11 official South African languages would be supported by the search engine if Zulu is adopted.

On its attempt to broaden its language database, Google said, “Our team is working on expanding this list and Zulu could be one of the next supported languages with your help.

“If you speak Zulu and English, we will greatly appreciate your help with identifying good Zulu translations,” it added.

Volunteers are being asked to rate whether the translations between one of the test languages and English are Excellent, Good, Fair or Poor.

Teething problems

Despite many celebrating the initiative, some people have highlighted problems with the service.

Johannesburg-based Nicholous Mabilane, a candidate attorney at Webber Wentzel co-majored in Zulu at the University of Johannesburg. He tested the new service for The South African.

He said, “I find the translation very poor. It appears to me as if someone merely programmed Zulu terms straight from the dictionary without due consideration of the grammar rules of the language.”

Mabilane explained that the verbs in the English-to-Zulu translations are missing the  subject morphemes used when they follow a noun.

“Take for an example the following sentence,” explained Mabilane, “’Lucas is driving a car’.

“The version of Zulu Google Translate goes ‘Lucas shayela moto’, which if translated back to English is ‘Lucas drive car’. The correct translation is ‘uLucas ushayela imoto’. The subject morpheme ‘u-‘, must always qualify the subject noun,” he explained.

Some of the other trial African languages have also been criticised by some volunteers on the Google Africa website.

“The Hausa translation … is wonky, believe me,” explained Habeeb Pindiga, deputy editor of the Nigerian publication The Daily Trust Newspaper.

“Only a few words are translated accurately, and none of the sentences is intelligible,” he added.


Google explains on its website that not all translations are perfect as they are generated by machines.

“The more human-translated documents that Google Translate can analyse in a specific language, the better the translation quality will be. This is why translation accuracy will sometimes vary across languages,” it said.

If made permanent, the quality of the Zulu service could improve with time, much like its Afrikaans counterpart.

On The South African‘s Facebook page, Andrew Sinclair said the Afrikaans service is developing, despite it being “quite dodgy” at the beginning.

He said: “The Afrikaans one is improving and, in my experience, [is] pretty good now.”

After volunteers have assessed the five trialling services, Google will decide whether it will make each language a permanent part of the search engine.

Mabilane believes that Google Translate should support the language as “Zulu is the most widely spoken indigenous language in South Africa and … is not going to become extinct,” he said.

Click here to rate the new Zulu Google Translate.

Comment below to let us know how you get on.