Since the launch of Google Translate over a decade ago, almost all of us have become familiar with machine translation in our personal and professional lives. You have likely used it to translate a social media post or a website from a foreign country, and you have probably been surprised: at times by how it useful it was, and at times by how wrong it could be.
Machine translation (sometimes called MT) has improved a lot, and new options such as DeepL have renewed confidence in MT in the eyes of many, except for one group in particular: people with a high level of knowledge in more than one language. Since machine translation first became widely available, it has been embraced uncritically by people who are not able to judge the results. Google Translate updated and improved its technology around 2016; it still may not be the best, but it has indeed improved dramatically. Yet well before this, starting around 2010, Google translation of websites became available and began to be widely used. Have you ever used the Google Translate option on a foreign website? To this day, a certain percentage is nearly always gibberish.
The utility of these tools cannot be denied: a poor translation is better than no translation. In some situations, low accuracy that allows for basic comprehension is enough. But from a professional standpoint, a poor translation may hurt your image.
Let’s think about some of the types of documents you may need to translate:
Private Communications: Memos/Emails
Memos and Emails: When the stakes are low, MT might be a great option for internal communications. Emails need to be turned around quickly and like memos, their audience is usually limited. At most international companies and organizations, not everyone is multilingual and day to day operations may not need perfect translations. The same may be true for organizations from different countries that have a partnership or business deal: a long working relationship may make it easier to communicate without perfect formal language.
However, there are exceptions: if your company needs to communicate with an international parent company, these relationships can be very important and at times sensitive, and a human translation can ensure a good result and account for the cultural norms or taboos of the target audience. Likewise, if you are making a deal with a new foreign partner, the stakes can be high, and a human translation can ensure that you or your organization appear professional.
External Communications and Marketing: Websites, Blogs, Social Media
Marketing: When marketing to customers or communicating to the public, it is important to speak their language. These types of communications tend to not be very technical, but their content is intentionally written with nuance or style, which is something that MT software do not understand. Their translations may be technically correct, but are likely to sound dull, stiff, or unnatural.
Websites: Websites share similar terminology (Home, Contact, Add to Cart, etc.) so for simple websites, MT can be an easy option. However, marketing language is lost. Imagine an online store: a machine-translated website may be easy enough to navigate, but unique product names, materials, and measurements are likely to be mistranslated.
Blogs: Many websites, like this one, have blogs to attract SEO searches. When longer texts are machine translated, they may be mostly accurate, but they lose fluidity and become harder to read. If a blog isn’t an easy read, customers are likely to stop reading and leave the website.
Social Media: If links and pictures are what most attract your clients, machine-translated captions may be enough for you. But for social media campaigns to attract new customers in a new market, an accurate translation is not enough: the final product must sparkle in the target language.
How to choose?
In all of these examples, there are a few major considerations: how professional, natural, and accurate does your text need to be?
Privately, professionalism is very important in international companies or when working with international clients. When the stakes are low, MT may be just fine. But a major deal or publication will benefit greatly from human translation.
Publicly, it is very important to sound natural when speaking to clients or customers; native speakers are always able to tell when your text sounds funny. Even just a few errors in your website, blog, or social media post can make your product or service seem low quality or untrustworthy.
When it comes to accuracy, that depends on the complexity of your document. MT has improved, but a certain degree of inaccuracy is unavoidable. You will need to decide when and where that is acceptable.
At Southern Cone Translations, machine translation is not a taboo subject. Our goal is to find the right solution for you, and we want your decision to be an informed one. Despite what you may have heard, machine translation is not yet perfect, and it is not necessarily the future of the industry. If you are wondering what kind of translation is right for you, we’re here to help.