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When to use and not to use machine translation

9th September 2020
Reading time 3 min
When to use and not to use machine translation

Machine translation is a tool that can be incredibly efficient but can also leave your copy empty and readers confused if it’s not used correctly. So when should you use machine translation over the opposite, manual translation?

Machine translation explained:

Firstly to explain machine translation, it is a software that allows direct translation from a source language to a chosen language. These often use machine learning in order to improve the quality of the translations based on analysing the large volume of previously translated texts. For this reason the most popular software tends to be the most accurate as they would have acquired the most data. Google translate is the best example and is the most widely used translation service, specifically for consumer use. This is not to be confused with Translation Memory tools. These tools will store all your personal or brand translations and can learn a writing style or industry terms. For example if you are often writing in an informal style the software can remember your preference of “bike” over “bicycle” and will offer this as an output translation.

Pros and cons

Although there are paid machine translation services, the majority are free service making it a huge cost saving. As with any cost you will need to judge the risk vs reward factor on each piece of text and what the implications of a potentially mistranslated text would be for your brand i.e how much can you save by using machine translation vs how important is it that this text is interpreted correctly by the reader. Often you will find the cost will pay off.

For a single translator to translate thousands of words from a document could take huge amounts of time and be expensive especially if the language required is more obscure and leaves fewer options for translators. Inputting the same document into a machine transition service could give an instant result. Previously texts that were too long and costly to translate would simply go without translation leaving certain demographics clueless. The ability to mass translate text will provide at least some clarity even if the end result could be improved.

Even after using a machine translation service you are most likely to use a proof reader to double check the final output. A proof reader is going to be cheaper and take less time than a translator but will give you the peace of mind you need to implement the text into your assets. This fusion of manual and machine translation can be the most effective method specifically for longer text documents such as instruction manuals and ebooks.

If machine translation is not done correctly it can lead to some very embarrassing blunders many of which go viral for the wrong reasons. Having a database of trusted freelance translators or using a translation service that can offer reliable translators can guarantee a quality result. If you can’t take the risk a translator is a safe bet. With that said a translation does not always need to be 100% accurate to get the message across. Internal communication is an example of translation work which may warrant machine translations. If you are satisfied with a “close enough” result and looking to save cost wherever you can this might be the best bet.

Although it is hard to beat the price point “free” where Google translate lands, translating doesn’t need to be expensive. Translators will often charge by the word so unless you're translating a small novel it’s worth weighing the costs. Making sure your text is accurately translated could even save you money in the long run. Poorly translated work can lead to confused clients and customers which could cost you time in a hoard of questions. Think carefully about the potential fallout from your text being misunderstood and how this could affect your day-to-day business.

Machine translation lacks the ability to accurately translate specific writing styles, tone of voice, cultural nuances, idioms, ect. Therefore machine translation should be strictly used only for non-emotional texts and should be avoided whenever communicating the brands or it’s values. This is where transcreators or copywriters come in which you can read more about here.

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