Human translation VS machine translation: what are the differences?

Human translation VS machine translation

Do you need to translate your content and are you unsure whether you should choose human translation, with a professional translator, or machine translation, via online software? We take a look at the main differences and the advantages and disadvantages of these two translation methods.


What is human and machine translation?

Machine translation is performed by a computer without the intervention of a human translator. In today’s digital world, there are a wide range of machine translation tools available to translate content into hundreds of different languages in a matter of seconds. Google Translate is probably the best known consumer machine translation tool.

There are different methods of machine translation (neural translation, statistical machine translation, and RBMT – rule-based translation).

Human translation is, as the name suggests, carried out by a human translator, a professional who has a perfect command of the language combinations required and is fully familiar with the translation process.

The methodologies used for human and machine translation are therefore completely different.


What are the main differences between human and machine translation?

Machine translation and human translation differ in many ways: price, quality, operation... To understand these two methods better, we have listed the advantages and disadvantages of each type of translation here.


The advantages and disadvantages of human translation

One advantage of human translation is that it is carried out by a native translator, who translates into their mother tongue and who has a perfect command of the source language.

In addition, human translators have unique skills that a computer does not have (creativity, sensitivity, the ability to interpret, etc.). This allows them to take into account the context of the translation. In addition, they are usually very familiar with the local culture of the country for which the translation is intended. This enables them to take into account all of the cultural subtleties, and therefore to adapt the text to the culture etc. of the country concerned.

The result is natural, fluid, and the reader will not be aware of the translation phase (provided, of course, that an experienced and qualified translator is used).

However, using a human translator is more expensive than using machine translation software. And unlike machine translation, human translation is not instantaneous.


The advantages and disadvantages of machine translation

Machine translation is popular because it is very cheap, often even free. Another advantage is the speed of translation: in a matter of seconds, a large document can be translated into a wide variety of language combinations.

However, machine translation has disadvantages too. It is primarily a literal translation, which does not take into account the cultural context and idiosyncrasies  of the target audience.

The end result is often shaky, less accurate, and will often lack consistency. This is particularly the case when translating into less common languages.


Human translation and machine translation: what should you choose?

Making a choice between human and machine translation depends on a number of criteria, such as the type of translation, the language pairing, and your budget.


When should you choose machine translation?

Machine translation can be useful for content that is for personal use and not intended to be shared. For example, to get a quick understanding of an email received in another language.

It should be avoided for content that is intended for distribution whether to customers, business partners or other stakeholders, as it may damage your company's reputation.


When should you choose human translation?

You should use a professional translator for documents, which are intended to be shared, in order to preserve  your company's brand image.

Human translation is preferable therefore when you need the translation of promotional or commercial content, or your website. The same applies to documents that require targeted expertise (financial translation, legal translation, medical translation, etc.). Finally, marketing and advertising content, which has a broad cultural dimension, should also be translated professionally.

However, the quality of a human translation depends on the translator's experience and expertise in the sector. It is therefore important to choose your service provider carefully.


FAQ on human and machine translation

The most successful free machine translation tools are Google Translate and DeepL. Other tools include Reverso and Linguee.

Some translations do not lend themselves to machine translation at all. This is particularly true of legal, financial, medical, and marketing translations. Moreover, sworn translations can never be carried out by software.

This is a translation that is first carried out using automatic translation software (for example neural translation using artificial intelligence) and then post-edited (i.e. proofread and corrected) by a professional human translator. This is a very practical solution, which is attractive because of its lower cost and its guarantee of quality.


About the author

Frédéric Ibanez

The editorial team, which is led by the founder of the group to which Alphatrad UK belongs, consists of experts who specialise in language services. Our goal is to regularly provide you with articles related to translation and language services, which will help you with your language services’ needs.

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