As Google Translate gets better, does cheating via ‘backtranslation’ or ‘spinning’ become a bigger threat?

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Want to get away with copy-paste plagiarism? In 2015, Jones & Sheridan published a paper about ‘backtranslation’, which is what happens when you translate some text from its original language (say, English) to another language (say, Spanish), then back to the original language. Doing this, they argued, would paraphrase the text so tools like Turnitin wouldn’t detect it. They weren’t the first to publish about this (Lancaster & Clarke published a similar idea called ‘essay spinning’ in 2009), but they give a nice example. Here is the text Jones & Sheridan backtranslated in their paper:

While many universities around the world would probably claim that their publicly stated policies and procedures will act as a deterrent to any student contemplating plagiarism, their publication alone is unlikely to cut any sway with would-be plagiarists.

They then used 2015 Google Translate to convert it into the following Spanish:

Mientras que muchas universidades en todo el mundo demandarían probablemente que sus políticas y procedimientos público indicados actuarán como impedimento a cualqu- ier estudiante que comtempla plagio, su publicación solamente es poco probable cortar cualquier sacudimiento con los plagiarios supuestos.

Then they used 2015 Google Translate to convert it into the following English:

Whereas many universities anywhere in the world would demand probably that their indicated policies and procedures public will act like impediment to any student who contemplate plagiarism, its publication is only little probable to cut any shaking with the supposed plagiarists.

That’s not great. But as Google Translate has gotten better, so too has the results of backtranslation. See this 2016 English-Spanish-English translation:

While many universities around the world would probably say that its policies and procedures publicly act as a deterrent to any student contemplating plagiarism, publication alone is unlikely to cut any domain aspiring plagiarists .

Much better, but still clunky. But what about now, in 2017:

While many universities around the world would probably say that their publicly declared policies and procedures will act as a deterrent to any student contemplating plagiarism, publication alone is unlikely to cut off any influence with potential plagiarists.

That’s excellent, and a testament to the improvement of Google Translate. However it’s also almost identical to the original text! In 2015 I thought that as Google Translate got better, backtranslation would become a bigger threat – but it appears that the opposite might be the case.

However we shouldn’t rest too easy, as some of these same technological advances could also be used to make essay spinning tools better.

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