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Machine vs human translation: the pros, cons and when to use each

Published on March 22nd, 2016

The long-running debate of machine vs human translation refuses to go away. This is partly because technology improves every year and the quality of translation it offers is constantly rising.

Now seems like a good time to update our view on the machine vs human translation debate. Today we’ll be looking at the pros and cons of both, as they stand in 2016, as well as in which types of situation you might choose to use each of them.

Machine vs Human Translation

Machine translation: the pros and cons

The advantages of machine translation generally come down to two factors: it’s faster and cheaper. The downside to this is the standard of translation can be anywhere from inaccurate, to incomprehensible, and potentially dangerous (more on that shortly).

The advantages of machine translation

  • Many free tools are readily available (Google Translate, Skype Translator, etc.)
  • Quick turnaround time                                                                  
  • You can translate between multiple languages using one tool
  • Translation technology is constantly improving

The disadvantages of machine translation

  • Level of accuracy can be very low                    
  • Accuracy is also very inconsistent across different languages
  • Machines can’t translate context                                            
  • Mistakes are sometimes costly                                              
  • Sometimes translation simply doesn’t work

The most important thing to consider with any kind of translation is the cost of potential mistakes. Translating instructions for medical equipment, aviation manuals, legal documents and many other kinds of content require 100% accuracy. In such cases, mistakes can cost lives, huge amounts of money and irreparable damage to your company’s image. So choose carefully!

Human translation: the pros and cons

Human translation essentially switches the table in terms of pros and cons. A higher standard of accuracy comes at the price of longer turnaround times and higher costs. What you have to decide is whether that initial investment outweighs the potential cost of mistakes. Alternatively, whether mistakes simply aren’t an option, like the cases we looked at in the previous section.

The advantages of human translation

  • It’s a translator’s job to ensure the highest accuracy
  • Humans can interpret context and capture the same meaning, rather than simply translating words
  • Human translators can review their work and provide a quality process
  • Humans can interpret the creative use of language, e.g. puns, metaphors, slogans, etc.
  • Professional translators understand the idiomatic differences between their languages
  • Humans can spot pieces of content where literal translation isn’t possible and find the most suitable alternative

The disadvantages of human translation

  • Turnaround time is longer                                                               
  • Translators rarely work for free                                                       
  • Unless you use a translation agency, with access to thousands of translators, you’re limited to the languages any one translator can work with

Simply put, human translation is your best option when accuracy is even remotely important. Other considerations to make are the complexity of your source material and the two languages you’re translating between – both of which can render machines pretty useless.

When to use machine and human translation

The truth is, the debate over machine vs human translation is an unnecessary distraction. What we should really be talking about is when to use these two different types of translation services, because they both serve a very valid purpose.

Examples of when to use machine translation

  • When you have a large bulk of content to translate and the general meaning is enough
  • When your translation never reaches the final audience, e.g. you’re translating a resource as research for another piece of content
  • Translating documents for internal use within a company, provided 100% accuracy isn’t needed
  • To partially translate large chunks of content for a human translator to improve upon

Examples of when to use human translation

  • When accuracy is important
  • Most cases where your translated content is received by a consumer audience
  • When you have a duty of care to provide accurate translations (e.g. legal documents, product instructions, medical guidelines or health and safety content)
  • When translating marketing material or other texts for creative language uses

Hopefully we’ve offered a balanced look at both machine and human translation in this article. Above all, we want to make it clear that both means of translation deserve their place in the industry, even if they play very different roles. So let’s forget about the machine vs human translation debate and focus instead on choosing the right service for each given product.

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Posted on: March 22nd, 2016