• Nixie Adams

Machine translation vs. human translation

Machine translation means automated translation by computer software. It can be used to translate texts without any human input. Today, the value of the MT market is estimated to be between US$130 million to US$400 million. While custom-built machine translation engines tailored to specific companies can be quite successful, generic machine translation programs such as Google Translate are a different story.

The internet is full of examples of flagrant mistranslations, and most are the work of such machine translation programs. The companies concerned could easily have avoided these serious mistakes and the accompanying financial losses and damage to their image by simply investing in a professional human translation.

Sure, machine translation has greatly improved in recent years, and companies with tight deadlines or cost pressures increasingly flee to its embrace. Within seconds, an automatic translation tool can translate an entire website or advertising campaign. And without spending a penny! But as is so often the case in life, you get what you pay for. Or in this case, what you don’t pay for.


Personal use

There’s a time and place for machine translations like those produced by Google Translate. But the results bear no comparison to the work of a professional translator. Machine translations are fine for personal or informational purposes if all you need is a rough idea of the content. Say you want to read that Facebook post by your Greek friend or decipher a Spanish blog post about one of your hobbies. But the moment you actually want to send a message to customers or prospects, it’s vital to use a human translator if you don’t want to damage your reputation or possibly even deal with a backlash of legal problems.

That’s because generic machine translation tools have their limits. They can give you a basic idea of what a text means, but they can’t deliver a consistent, precise translation as a human translator would do. A machine can handle a text much faster than a human translator, of course. But translation is an art as well as a science, and it requires human expertise to craft a text fit for professional purposes.


Official communications

Translation software should never be used for texts intended for publication, or which will be used in external communications international advertising campaigns, for example, or websites and newsletters. Texts of this nature don’t just contain information; they showcase a company on an international level. If a text is to be used globally, it should not contain any mistakes. Automatically generated translations might look acceptable at first glance, but they’re generally riddled with mistakes that, quite frankly, make the text laughable to a native speaker upon closer inspection. This can wreak irreparable damage to the credibility and reputation of the company. Many professional translators will refuse to proofread or edit machine translations because this process is actually more time-consuming than translating from scratch. So if you need support from a professional translator to polish a machine-translated text, don’t make the mistake of thinking it will be any cheaper or faster than if you’d gone there directly.


Advertising copy

Advertising texts are often packed with rhetoric and figures of speech, the purpose of which is to establish an emotional bond with the customer. Some advertising texts even rhyme! A qualified translator who specialises in marketing will quickly find a corresponding slogan or rhyme so that the translation has the same effect on customers as the original. Online translation tools, on the other hand, can only deliver a literal, word-for-word translation — with no scope for bedazzling rhetoric.

Something to bear in mind the next time you need a text translated.


Originally published in Mensa World Journal, 1 September 2020


Photo by Philipp Katzenberger on Unsplash