Machine translation – what can it do and what can't it do?

23.05.2016
Machine translation versus human translation

Imagine a typical day in the office: E-mails fly in from the new business partner in Japan, an offer for a major client in Helsinki or Milan is on the table, your team partner writes in German: cross-border communication across the world is the order of the day. And if you understand very little of the German correspondence in front of you, it’s not a problem, because nowadays all you have to do is feed the text into a machine. And almost instantaneously it spits it out again in the desired language. Quite simple, right? Yes, if it wasn't for the fact that your business success depends on communication...

In this age of globalisation, there is more translation work than ever. There is increased demand for translation of international business transactions, correspondence, websites, contracts, transcriptions, quotations, documentation, etc. and even the scope of the texts has increased greatly. However, hiring a translator or translation service every time is often not feasible in the time available – or it may not always be within the budget.

To solve this you need to know when you can trust a machine translation and what you can expect from one – and when you should use a human translator – because everything that you communicate reflects on your image. Your reader’s appreciation of the translated piece, its quality, structure, and readability is vital for ongoing business development and success.

There are fairly distinguished free translation tools such as Google Translate and professional translation software available on the market and these are continuously being optimised and extended, e.g. for specific project requirements.

 

We have put together a quick list of the pros and cons of translation software:

Pros of translation software

Cons of translation software

  • It is comparatively cheap and in certain case is even free
  • It often does not read fluently and has unusual sentence structures, which are often incomprehensible
  • It is always available
  • It only translates words and cannot "read between the lines" or emphasise something of importance
  • It can translate large amounts of text in a very short time
  • It cannot handle ambiguous words or grammatical structures, such as the dual meaning of the German word "Bank", which means both a banking institution and a bench, or "einstellen", which means to calibrate something and to employ somebody
  • It offers many target languages at the push of a button
  • It often fails to handle long sentences and is imprecise

 

  • Professional programmes often require intensive updating in terms of technical terminology

 

Conclusion: If it’s essential to you to have structured, understandable, and readable texts, you can’t do without human translation entirely. At the very least, a combination of machine translation and post-editing, i.e. subsequent human intervention is therefore necessary.

 

Extra tip: large amounts of text

If you have large amounts of text to translate, carefully selected professional translation software is recommended. For standardised texts such as simple handbooks, this software can deliver good results.

 

Not recommended: machine translation for marketing and advertising

Machine translation is unsuitable for marketing, corporate branding or advertising copy, as it only translates the words and does not convey the underlying messages through the effect of language or the choice of specific words. For simple correspondence, on the other hand, translation software is often helpful.

 

Use caution with technical texts: for example contracts etc.

You should not use machine translation for legal texts. The contents are too complex and errors can swiftly lead to time-consuming questions and extended clarification processes, the breakdown of negotiations or even costly legal consequences.