Free Translation - Good Idea, Or Bad?

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People often ask about “free translation”. They are surprised by the cost and time involved in professional translation, when tools like Google translate are instant and “free”. Like other similar products, Google translate is a machine translation engine. By this we mean that there is no human author. The computer is comparing text to give a rendering of one language in another.

Translation purpose

Whether it is a good idea, depends on the purpose of the translation. If you only need gist of a web page, it may be okay. Or perhaps you need to know whether the foreign language email in your inbox is a genuine enquiry, or spam. At this level it will probably do the job. The difficulty is when you need something of more substance. For example, do you have a technical document? Google is unlikely to understand technical vocabulary. Do you need a rare language? More problematic, as Google won’t have as much indexed content to compare.

Damaging your brand

Someone recently sent us a copy of their sales brochure. They were a high end machine manufacturer. Their products retailed for over £20,000 each. They said they had had negative feedback about their brochure at a recent trade show in Germany. They had obviously spent a lot of money on the quality of print, layout, and artwork. I was incredulous to discover that they had then “translated’ all the content using Google. The result? Garbage. They would actually have been better to have only an English brochure, than the rubbish which they produced in German.

The image of translation

Our perspective is that so called “free translation” tools actually damage the image of translation, because they give the impression that what in reality is a highly skilled and professional task can be performed for free by a machine. If machine translation really worked effectively would an organisation with the size and spending power of the US government reportedly have agreed a translation contract last year worth $11.8 billion dollars?