Machine Translation: When to Use

November 19, 2014

Translation-Source_logo_wo_text_300dpiMachine translation has made great strides since its creation in the 1950s but it is still far from perfect.

While the general consensus among language service providers is that machine translation is best avoided, it is becoming increasingly common for certain business needs.

Below, we’ve provided a list of 7 situations in which machine translation may be a good solution.


1.- To supplement professional translation services.

Professional translators often use automated glossaries and other software to aid their work. This is known as machine-assisted translation.

SDL Trados Studio, a program popular with many professional translators, allows for repeated content to be translated automatically. The translator then has the option of either accepting the machine translation, or rejecting it in favor of a manual translation.

2.- For that one word you don’t know.

There are many websites and programs that function like bilingual dictionaries. These can be quite useful for someone who has basic knowledge of a foreign language, but just needs help with the translation of a specific word or phrase.

Be wary of using these programs for more than one word at a time. Since they are not able to distinguish between contextual nuances, embarrassing mistakes are all too common.

3.- For assimilation of information.

Machine translation often results in awkward sentence structure and grammatical errors. Therefore it should not be used for content that will be published or shared with others.

But machine translation can be useful for the assimilation of information, when only a general idea of the content is needed.

Machine translation should not be used for assimilation of sensitive material such as negotiations or contracts. In these situations a small mistake could lead to a disastrous misunderstanding.

4.- On-demand Translation.

When consulting a translator is not an option, machine translation may be the only solution.  Many international businesses, for example, rely on chat programs or e-mail to communicate between members of a project across different countries.

In these cases the translation need is immediate and time-sensitive. When using machine translation for on-demand translation, be sure to let the receiver know that your message has been translated automatically so that any possible errors will be forgiven.

5.- For large, specialized projects.

Companies in the technological and scientific industries often look to machine translation for large amounts of information with a very limited context.

For example, an instruction manual for a piece of equipment that will be used internationally could mean thousands of pages translated into several different languages.

Large-scale machine translation projects require an upfront investment to create and maintain a glossary. This expense is only justifiable for large volumes of text with specialized or repetitive language.

6.- In a highly-controlled environment.

In order to get adequate results from machine translation, the program should be customized to a company’s specific needs.

Often the original documentation is guided by a strict style manual that aims to limit ambiguities which could cause problems for machine translation. Customized machine translation programs can be built for your company by a professional language service provider.

7.- When post-editing is an option.

Machine translation is not the best choice for an important message that needs to be clearly understood. As a general rule, it should be used as a last resort, when the choice is between machine translation, or no translation at all.

If terminological consistency across a large multi-lingual project dictates the need for machine translation, a professional translator or editor should be called in to post-edit the content and check for errors.

If you would like additional information on this topic or have questions on planning and executing your next translation or multilingual initiative, contact us today for a free 30-minute consultation or call us at (800) 413-7838.

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