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Demystifying machine translation: Do translators need to worry?

"See translation". Two increasingly visible words in the digital environment. Whether it's about built-in machine translation (MT) apps and gadgets in social media, browsers, or even the soon-to-be-available wireless earplugs connected to smartphones that translate human speech as we speak, machine translation is all around us. Machines are learning and improving exponentially, and attentive translators could be increasingly bothered by the fact that some mystical Joe Bot takes over their potential income. There are a few reasons, why translators don't (yet) need to worry about their remote future and well-being. Not just for general or Shakespearean style translation, but also many other fields.

Three reasons favoring human translators

  1. Machines think logically, while human language is not logical.

Global human language as a generalized form of any human communication is like an organism. It's highly complicated, imperfect, evolving and even somewhat illogical if the intention is to to rewrite and transfer the written word into the rigid, binary world – ergo the language of machines. Over seven billion people with various historical and cultural backgrounds have accumulated such a vast number of fuzzy content to deal with that even with increasing computing capacity and advanced artificial intelligence, today's MT solutions are still unable to deliver satisfying results.

  1. MT discriminates.

The more "logical", in-use and exception-free a language is (English and Spanish are good examples), the closer it gets to the thinking, or processing, of MT bots. Frankly, sometimes it's rather disturbing how accurate MT gets with translation into English, but the more complicated rules and exceptions and illogical nuances a language has, the more desperate results the translation apps return. Eventually, it's always the human brain that puts the pieces together and one can probably conclude that the less narrower  your language focus is, the longer you can laugh at what Google and other service bot translators deliver, albeit with some exceptions.

  1. MT can slow down the translation process.

Simple, short segments, mainly of general text and even technical stuff, constitute an area where MT can be very helpful if the work-flow of the translation environment is well designed. With well-prepared translation resources, MT can save time for  translators as it can correctly translate a fair deal of content. However, the "fair deal of content" – of course depending on the language – really does not make up (based on our internal data and experience) much more than about 10-15% of the overall text mass. Longer segments are still a challenge for translation engines, and often they deliver unintelligent results that can take a lot long for a translator to straighten out than simply translating such segments from scratch.

Together with translation memories and glossaries, translators have an arsenal of content at their disposal, which of course can help but this can also distract and cause loss of time when the translator tries picking his/her best options among all given resources. Decision paralysis, or work obstruction for lack of a better word, are well-known to translators working with MT.

They need to make numerous decisions for each and every text segment they work on: which fuzzy match would be best for the segment, is the machine proposal acceptable, does glossary proposals interfere, is grammar correct, etc.?

Summing up, we have a paradox where certain types of work-flows with MT intended to speed up the translation actually does the contrary and slows down the process as a result of overinput, human hesitation, a quest for perfection and vagueness and inconsistency that a human trained translator has learned to avoid. 

The main argument talking against MT is the way we interact and think. Yes, machines can beat the human brain in terms of volume and sheer processing power, but until MT actually becomes able to reflect human intuition, work flexibly and with an ability to improvise, impress and excel, real quality – which is what matters most in translation – namely the art of translation will still rest with us humans.

Future of MT

The question then is if there is a future for machine translation. The answer is a definite Yes. It will without doubt become a valuable tool to professional translators working in scientific fields. Once we learn to tame the output and recognize the short-comings, there is a good chance it can boost productivity.

Most people agree that the World Wide Web has become such a convenient tool that most of us now take for granted. For most of today's prosperous businesses, it is also a powerful sales tool in particular to those who aim to expand internationally. Speaking the language of your target market and potential customers is undoubtedly a competitive advantage and a way to increase international sales and product awareness. But is website translation, or better said localization of the website really so important...or is it just another upsell?

"Everybody speaks English, right?"

Actually, they don't. And even if your customers do speak English as their second language, addressing them in their native tongue has much stronger impact and delivers the message to a wider audience. This is especially important to ponder for a company that considers itself "international", or even "multinational". 
Need more evidence? Let's look at some numbers*:

  1. More than 56% of customers are willing to buy the same product at higher prices if the website contains information in their native language. Ergo if you localize, besides gaining a wider audience, your margin increases – not just absolutely, but also relatively.
  2. 65% of your multinational competition considers localization of their content, including websites, as important, or veryimportant for achieving higher company revenues. Alas, a big majority of international players already know what you know. However, the sole fact that the competition realizes or considers something doesn't automatically mean they pursue exceptional efforts in the matter. Speed is the key here. Whoever get's the right message to the right audience can win the market – let it be you. The sooner and better you localize, the more likely you are to outrun your rivals.
  3. Can you afford loosing a homogeneous online market, counting over a billion potential customers? Well, you do exactly that if you omit to localize your website into Chinese. 95 out of 100 Chinese online customers prefer and are significantly more comfortable with websites in their native tongue.

Dollarphotoclub 82741407

Machines translate. Never localize.

Now that you are all in for website localization, it's important to address what localization of your website actually means. And mainly the difference between website translation and website localization (because it's really NOT the same thing). Simply put, when you merely translate your website (usually using free machine translation tools), you do not customize the content and the message in terms of linguistic and cultural specifics of the target market. You merely rely on the machine to match the words and phrases from your website with a database. Despite evolving in intelligence and learning literally day to day, machines can still deliver only a mechanical translation (what a surprise) with a surprisingly high error rate. 

And we come to the point of necessity to employ human skills to edit not just content errors and word order, but also address the "clumsiness" of content converted by machines, and to adapt the translated content to make it appealing and sound natural in the target language, i.e. to localize the website. 

Therefore, if you are serious about expanding to new international markets, wish to understand your customers and want the online content to relate to them, put your effort into the quality of website localization. You sell to humans. Don't talk like a machine. 


It was raining on Wednesday and pretty cold. Nonetheless, the 24th JTF Translation Festival in Tokyo turned out to be a successful event with many inspirational panel discussions and presentations revealing new perspectives on the translation industry.

A miserable day for translators in rainy Tokyo :)

We set everything up at our idioma booth early in the morning, and then welcomed visitors throughout the day until 5 pm when the festival ended. It was really nice to see our existing clients visiting us, and we also met many new people and had constructive discussions about our cooperation and future translation projects.  

idioma booth at 24th JTF Translation Festival in Tokyo

The topic we introduced at the 24th JTF Translation show was the improved Stream online estimator and idioma's document alignment service iSync. Along with other smart language services we provide, all are based on a combination of online solutions, in-house software development and most importantly: human professional translators, reviewers  and project managers.

Presentation of Stream – online translation estimates service

This year's show was noteworthy because many participants were discussing machine translation (MT) as one of the possible future scenarios for the translation and localization industry. While considering machine translation a promising field as an aid in the translation process, we believe it should be an aid to human, professional translators who will be "editing" text instead of translating. Machine translation sure does have a lot of potential, and we look forward to how it will affect the way we work and our translation services.

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