Man vs Machine: Which Is Better For Translation?

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Whilst there are many automatic translating services aimed at understanding the general gist of text, such as Google Translate, they still fall short for longer pieces that need to be translated accurately- if they are to go on a website for example. So why is it so hard for programs to correctly translate complex text? Whilst machines have certainly come in strides, especially considering the new breakthrough of live translation earpieces (à la Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy), these programs still only translate roughly and with a relatively high margin of error. This is because language is hard. Not only is it structurally complicated, especially if translating between a Latin and non-Latin language, it also contains several layers of cultural nuances that only a native can pick up on. For example, slang, idioms, flow and relevance all need to be taken into account so it doesn’t side like, well, that a machine wrote it.

Humans have wanted to translate quickly and accurately for a long time. But despite the demand and interest, the road to commercial success has been a long and painful one. Whilst human translation offers correct, relevant and personalised content, it comes at a higher price. If your budget is smaller, the key is knowing which parts of your business are better suited to the man or machine. The best candidate for machine translation is content that is heavy in volume, predictable in vocabulary, and low in stylistic requirements.

Texts that are suited to machines include:

  • Technical documents that follow strict writing rules and style guides
  • Conversational pieces, to quickly share information among parties
  • Informational content that isn’t going to be published

This will give you:

  • Rapid results
  • Lower costs
  • Possibly unnatural language
  • Higher risk of errors
  • Grammatical issues
  • Lack of context

Machine translation can be customized over longer periods of time by essentially teaching the system specific syntax, vocabulary and writing styles. To balance this, many people use a combination of human and machine translation by using humans for post-editing as it can still provide a cost-efficient translation process that smooths over anything the computer isn’t equipped to deal with.

Professional translation:

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Unlike a machine, a human can translate context, humour and irony. The result is a high quality, publication-ready translation. Content that is targeted to a specific audience requires a more comprehensive understanding of the overall message. Unlike machines, humans understand when to be literal and when to localize.

Examples include:

  • Sales and marketing material
  • Legal documentation
  • Safety documentation
  • Literary works
  • Any content that has liability issues
  • Branding and company messaging
  • Marketing content
  • Software, apps, games, websites, etc

So what’s best for you?

Ask yourself these questions before deciding on a machine, human or combo option:

  • Do I care about how my content reads or do I just want to get the information’s gist?
  • Can I live with a few errors?
  • Does this translated content reflect my company’s brand or messaging?
  • Is there a liability issue with the content I am translating?

Choose wisely when opting for machine translation services as in some cases they may only provide a literal, word-for-word translation, which, as you can imagine, leads to a terrible result. Even though it might be comprehensible to some extent, it may not keep the original meaning. Moreover, some words can have various possible meanings in the target language. If you need more convincing of the pitfalls poor translation can bring, check out our post on When Translation Goes Wrong.

That being said, machine translation engines are becoming more and more sophisticated and perhaps it is only a matter of time before human translation becomes obsolete. This is a massive opportunity for business growth, considering that more than 40% of internet users are not English speakers. Until then, if you need some of your business translated, browse through our services to see what we can do for you.


Robert Lo Bue

Rob is CEO of Applingua. With over a decade's experience, he is at the forefront of tech localization.

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