Automation Doesn’t Solve Everything: Six Things You Should Know About Machine Translation


June 6, 2016 by atacompass

Taco Bell’s return to Japan in 2015 was widely anticipated, but the company’s launch of its Japanese-language website spawned a media frenzy—but not because of the food. With machine-translated menu items that turned “Cheesy Fries” into “Low Quality Fleece” and “Crunchwrap Supreme – Beef” into “Supreme Court Beef,” the company had to rush to take down the site to mitigate the damage to its image.

Translating your materials professionally is a smart business move. Translation may be required for your market. It makes people more likely to buy your products or services, and support costs go down as people can access information in their own language. But where to begin?

Sure, professional translators will get you exactly what you want, but you’ve probably heard some buzz about machine translation (MT) and are wondering if it might save you money and time. Before you take the plunge, here are some things you should know about MT.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Free online translators are very popular—Google alone serves up more than a billion translations per day. It’s important, though, to understand what you get when you use any free machine translation service:

MT systems can only give you an idea of what the foreign text says. Since they have to translate everything from love letters to shopping catalogs, they are designed to generalize rather than specialize. They don’t “know” what your text is about, so they “guess.” Often they guess right. Sometimes they don’t.

MT systems leverage big data and are programmed to give preference to the most popular words and phrases. Predictably, problems emerge. For example, in some language combinations “US President” was translated as “Bush” well into the Obama administration.

MT systems store and use your data to learn. That’s fine for a public webpage for your family trip, but not for your company’s confidential material.

Free translators are fine for the casual user, but their reliance on statistics, errors from incorrect data, and lack of confidentiality make them unsuitable for serious business translation.

The Machine Can Only Do So Much

Most serious MT users invest in training proprietary MT engines for specific kinds of text. If trained well, the resulting output should get words right, though it might not sound particularly elegant or even be grammatically correct. For some kinds of texts this might be acceptable, but for most it isn’t.

Machine Translation Won’t Work for All Texts and Languages

MT almost always involves translators or editors to refine the output. Even MT vendors agree it would be counter-productive to use MT for creative materials such as marketing copy or literature, and that it’s best used for drafting large sets of documentation or short-lived or otherwise untranslated materials.

It’s also important to note that MT does not handle all languages equally well. Languages with a similar structure may produce fairly good results, but if they differ greatly or there isn’t enough data, it might be more costly or impossible to develop a solution—making it more cost-effective to use a professional translator.

In short, there is no easy formula that can be applied to all text types and languages. Most companies that use MT agree that there is a lot of work involved in finding out whether it makes sense for their text types and language combinations.

Machine Translation Is an Ongoing Process

Long before the first word is ever translated, consultants, outside vendors, or in-house specialists need to determine an appropriate approach. You will need to budget for an ongoing process of:

  • Establishing why you want to use MT in the first place (as opposed to professional translators).
  • Determining which types of text and languages you want to translate using MT or professionals.
  • Evaluating what data and expertise you have available or need to acquire or to configure and customize your MT solution.
  • Assessing how your professional translators and editors can support the process.
  • Training your MT solution with new materials you produce.
  • Fine-tuning your process and re-evaluating your approach as technology continues to evolve.
You May Not Save Time or Money

Your MT process will change as your technical team and your translators and editors get better at working with MT.

Costs will likely shift. Once you’ve settled on an approach, your higher initial investment in systems and training costs might level off to a lower but ongoing constant—like any other IT investment. Engineering costs could be relatively stable, but translation and editing costs might eventually drop as systems improve and translators and editors refine their strategies.

You may have noticed the frequent use of the words “likely” and “might” above. That’s because there are many variables that can affect MT cost and time savings. Those same variables might also prevent the desired savings or make it actually more costly than professional translation.

Machine Translation Uses Humans; Human Translators Use Machine Translation

MT and translation professionals interact: An editor may correct MT output and—depending on the system—simultaneously “teach” the system so that the same error does not occur the next time.

In a more integrated process, professionals use MT to support their work in combination with their high-end software. By interweaving several tools, translators often achieve a significant productivity and quality boost.

There Is a Time and a Place for Every Technology

If qualified consultants determine that the cost and time of introducing MT would help you, you will still need professional translators and editors on your side to help you on this journey.

On the other hand, if the effort to introduce MT into your process is too costly or risky, you can benefit from professional translators who already use sophisticated translation technology to streamline their work and translate your materials with high and consistent quality.

At the end of the day, accurate information is key as you decide whether to invest in automating your translation processes. Consulting with experts will help you make a wise decision that gets your message across clearly and effectively without tarnishing your image.

About the Author

Caitilin Walsh is the immediate past president of ATA. She is an ATA-certified French-to-English translator who produces translations for the computer industry and food lovers alike. She is a graduate of Willamette University (Oregon) and the Université de Strasbourg (France). She teaches courses in ethics and business practices at the Translation and Interpreting Institute at Bellevue College. She is also a member of the Translation and Interpreting Advisory Committee for the Puget Sound Skills Center.

As printed in Communication World Magazine and Home Business Magazine.

For a list of other publications in which this article appeared, please see:

One thought on “Automation Doesn’t Solve Everything: Six Things You Should Know About Machine Translation

  1. Great article! Even though Machine Translation has its place on the market, more often than not, human translation is the best option for any company wanting to preserve their high quality reputation as a business. Thanks for writing this. I will definitely post it on my Facebook page!

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