I’m often asked whether Google translate will put translators out of work. Well the short answer is not any time soon. You will know this if you have read machine translation into English originating from countries such as China. So, machine translation or professional translation, which is best?

Language complexity

Machine translation has it’s place, for example if you want to understand the gist of an email. You can also use it to research web content in another language. It has extreme limitations though. The reason for this is the complexity of language, and particularly the multiplicity of possible meanings of individual words. A human professional translator will scan the source text, and easily understand the context, filtering out many possible translations which will be inappropriate. The translator will also read the whole passage, whilst all machine translation programmes essentially focus word by word.

Using post-editing

Some translation companies will start their translation process with a machine translation as the first draft, and then use professional translators to post-edit the text. I have a fundamental issue with this approach. We use our best translators to produce the first draft of any translation assignment. The aim is to start at the highest possible standard, and then tweak to further improve. A machine translation however starts you on the wrong path, for example there will be words which are wrong for the context, and the style and flow of the text will be completely wrong.

Technology in professional translation

Where there is a place for translation technology, is in building translation memory. The task here is that the human translator commits sentences and phrases to a database as they work. If they then encounter the same or a similar phrase within the same job, or a future job for the same client, they can then refer to the previous translation. This allows them to either accept the translation within the new assignment, or to amend the previous translation. The benefit of the machine here, is that it helps to improve the translator’s productivity and consistency.

So machine translation or professional translation?

If you simply need to understand the gist of an email, or a web page, then machine translation has its place, but if you need to translate a technical document, deliver a marketing message, or successfully sell online in another language – then you will need professional translation.

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