Man vs. Machine

27 Jan 2015
Man vs. Machine

Article written by freelance translator Diana Rhudick 

Which source is best for your translations?

Machine translation, or MT, has its place in international business. If cost is more important than quality on a project, and the main goal is understanding the gist of a document, then MT may be the right choice. Translation done automatically by a computer program comes in two main varieties: free, online translators such as Google Translate or Microsoft Translator, and customized machine translation engines. This post applies mainly to the former type.

To get a good-quality translation that reads like an original document and produces the same impact as the original, the savvy company will hire a human translator.

Here are six reasons why:

1) Human translators are capable of analyzing a text and extracting the author's main ideas. They then convey those same ideas in the translation, making sure to preserve the author's tone and register. Only a human can tell the difference between, “We sold tons of widgets” and “Sales increased significantly.”

2) Human translators have studied the culture, history, and practices that informed the source text. This means, among other things, that they can come up with appropriate idioms and phrasing in the target culture rather than translating expressions word for word. The Internet is clogged with comical machine translation bloopers such as the one about retranslating the phrase, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" as "The alcohol is strong but the meat is rotten."

3) If you have devoted considerable time and resources to producing high-quality corporate communications in your native language for your company, it makes sense to invest as much time and money into getting a high-quality translation of those materials.

4) Human translators can sense what the desired effect of a document is. Should it make the reader laugh or cry? Be impressed or concerned? Only a human can aim to reproduce the same effect in the translation, and understand inferences and nuances.                                                            

5) Skilled translators specialize in your field and know which terminology to use. A machine can certainly find definitions for the Spanish word "análisis," but only a medical translator would know to translate the term as “test results.”

6) Lastly, and most importantly for many companies, online MT programs do not preserve the confidentiality of your documents. Whatever you upload to the software is now available to the universe.

Companies have many other reasons for preferring to work with human translators instead of using machine translation, but the above list provides some important ideas to consider the next time you’re involved in a translation project.

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