Why Using Machine Translation Is Just Not Enough

Ilona K is a 5-Star writer at WriterAccess

Ilona K is a 5-Star writer at WriterAccess

When companies decide to reach a global audience, they often want to take the fastest, easiest route for getting materials translated. After all, the Internet is abuzz with all the latest apps that can give you instant translations! Can’t they just have a machine translate all of their important documents?

We all know technology can help immensely in our everyday lives. But when it comes to translating important documents, product descriptions or websites, you really should take a route that includes a human translator.  Because even when we are surrounded by all this helpful technology, translating is really all about humans. [Tweet it]

Sure, translation machines are getting more sophisticated every day. But they will never truly replace the human element. Can machines do direct word-for-word translations? Yes, most of the time. Aren’t machine translators used by translators in part of the translation process? Sometimes. But the operative word there is “sometimes” and it is never the sole source of translation. Computers simply aid the process. Every language and culture is different. There are even different cultures within the same language in the same country! So, when it comes to figurative language, double meanings and all that is human about language, computers are going to struggle and struggle they do.

Getting idioms right is essential

When it comes to idioms, computers usually fall short. For example:

In German, to express that you really don’t understand something, you can use the phrase “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.”  When entered into Google translate, the result is, “I understand only station.” We are pretty sure Germans understand more than trains, so this is a case of where a machine can’t see that this idiom is comparable to the English idiom, “It’s all Greek to me.”

Similarly, when German’s say “Auf den Keks gehen,” they are saying something is “getting on their nerves” They are not literally, as Google states, “going on the biscuit.”

And in classic German style, they have an idiom that is all about beer that has gone bad. When they utter, “Hopfen und Malz ist verloren,” they mean “something is a lost cause” and you should give up. When the beer brewing process goes awry and the hops and malt are lost, just stop the brewing process.  Google translate doesn’t see the poetry in this idiom. It translates the phrase as “lost hops and malt is.”  Another machine fail.

Pexels.com / Alexander Dummer

Pexels.com / Alexander Dummer

When the French utter “Couper la poire en deux,” that actually does mean “cut the pear in half,” as Google translate will tell you. But in this instance, it is also an idiom meaning “to meet someone half way.”

Of course, this list could include many other examples and other languages, but the point is, language is fluid and ever changing, like a river bed or a sandy ocean beach and translators need to understand the softer edges, the subtleties, flow, humor, cadence and interconnectedness of words and how they translate between each language. Languages are clearly human, so humans should be the ones to bridge the chasm between them.

Never send a computer to do a human translator’s job

Translation is more than a bunch of words on a document or website that need to be converted from one language to another. Many aspects that need to be taken into account before you can begin translation and all of the pieces are decidedly human. A quality human translator understands the client’s objectives from listening to and understanding the details, nuances and cultures involved. This results in a seamlessly polished, cohesive, high quality translation.

Even if machines could translate on a more sophisticated level, there’d still be something missing— the culture that surrounds and influences the languages. You must ensure your translations are culturally appropriate and understandable.  Cultural norms needs to be taken into consideration independent of language. For example, in a culture such as India, women often look to their husbands for their consent when dealing with many topics such as health issues. So, if you are writing and translating pharmaceutical documents geared towards Indian women, you could be wasting your time. But if you take into account India’s culture, maybe your documents should address the husbands instead. Taking the time to concentrate on cultural nuances such as this would benefit you tremendously.  This is not something a computer will ever understand.

Large or small, simple or complex, the scope of the project doesn’t really matter. Human translators working with other humans will encounter different wants, needs and perspectives. Human translators can decipher complex phrases with precision foreign to a computer. Humans can navigate the waters where there is no direct translation of a word from one language into another. Also, human translators adjust, adapt and overcome problems and questions that arise during the process. They can minimize client frustration and maximize their satisfaction.

So, when you are pondering translation, forget the computers and find a top-notch human translator. They may cost a bit more, but they could also be the key to a successful marketing campaign or global market entrance.  Using stiff, boring or erroneous computer-created translations will stall your efforts. If your translations are incorrect, offensive or even laughable, you will probably still get plenty of publicity and phone calls, but it won’t be the kind you were hoping for.

5-Star writer Ilona K wrote and illustrated her first novel when she was eleven. Her latest creations include website user guides for the Federal Aviation Administration and blog articles for a language service provider. Ilona can handle both the serious and sublime. And she does them all with professionalism, wit and a song in her heart.

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