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Dos and don’ts with machine translation tools

Machine translation has made huge advances since scientists laboriously punched Russian words into “electronic translators” in the 1950s. But the dream of the “universal translator” is still a long way off – creating plenty of opportunities for amusing slip-ups and linguistic faux pas.

Mashable noted recently that Google Translate managed to confuse Presidents Obama and Bush when translating an political report in a French newspaper. When it came across the phrase “le president américain” in an article about his re-election campaign, what was a computer to do?

The error makes sense when you understand how the machine translation tool works. It scans a vast number of online documents and their equivalents, including newspapers, websites, research papers and EU documentation. Then it chooses the most likely equivalent based on this information.

Its accuracy varies depending on the amount of source material. Between common languages, such as French and English, it’s impressively accurate (except for the odd blooper!) But unlike human translators, it doesn’t have an understanding of grammar, context, tone of voice – or current affairs.

It’s improved significantly recently, using new features such as crowdsourcing to improve the translation quality. Here are a few examples of when it’s a good tool to use – and when it’s best to rely on professional translators!

  • Do use it to read articles in foreign papers
  • Don’t use it as a quick way to translate articles for foreign readers – especially if you’re planning to publish them! The US-based Hartford Courant recently admitted it uses Google Translate to translate its Spanish section. Not surprisingly, there were more than a few complaints from Hispanic readers about the clunky language.
  • Do use it to make sense of foreign tweets
  • Don’t use it to translate your own social media, blogs or website. As the Malaysian Ministry of Defence discovered, relying on automatic translation can leave readers scratching their heads! And with only 140 characters to play with on Twitter, there’s little room for mistakes.
  • Do use it to understand incoming emails  and chat with friends in foreign languages
  • Don’t use it to write emails to clients. While friends will find your mistakes amusing, you can’t afford to let an email to a client be anything less than perfect. Many tricky aspects, such as the correct form of address, tone and level of formality are beyond the ability of a machine translator.
  • Do have fun! Some  language enthusiasts have turned it into a game. Try putting a phrase into Google Translate, translating it between multiple languages, until you end up with amusing results. Do have a go and let us know what you come up with!

But if you’d like guaranteed accuracy and fluency in your translation, then there’s still no substitute for professional, native-speaking translators. Do get in touch to find out more.


Hazel Mollison

Hazel Mollison edits and writes for the Lingo24 blog. After studying Italian and German at Cambridge University, she worked as a journalist for five years with regional and national newspapers. She enjoys writing about languages, translation, online marketing, and helping small businesses explore new opportunities.

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