If you’re like most people, you’ve used Google Translate or a similar machine translation tool at least once in your life. And why wouldn’t you? It’s fast, it’s free, and it gives you access to information written in a language you don’t speak. So if a man who speaks two languages is worth two men, does that mean Google Translate is worth 108? The simple answer is no. But before we dive into why, let’s cover some basics.

What is machine translation and how does it work?

Machine translation (MT) tools rely on artificial intelligence. In short, they use statistics, algorithms, and rules to learn languages. When you type a word or sentence into this kind of tool, you will get an instant translation pulled from a database. In a split second, you get access to information in a language you don’t understand.

For example, if you’re on vacation, you can understand the menu and greet the locals in their own language. You can also get access to international news without waiting for it to pop up on a local news site. You can even troll the forums in several languages. There’s no doubt that MT is convenient, cost-effective, and fast. It’s also true that it’s evolving and that it’s better than it was only a year ago.
You know what else it is? Light years away from being human.

What’s the difference between MT and CAT tools?

Disclaimer: CAT tools have nothing to do with the animal.
So, what is a CAT tool then? The abbreviation stands for computer-assisted translation, emphasis on “assisted”. In the case of MT, you get an instant translation completely done by a machine. When it comes to CAT tools, you get a translation done by a human who used the tool to speed up the process.

Computer-assisted translation tools bring together MT and translation memory. The main difference is that they’re supervised by a human. That means that a human needs to confirm the translation before it goes into the tool’s database. These tools help translators to stay consistent with previous documents. For example, if a person translates a legal document, they need to know the terminology. Since a CAT tool remembers it, checking it is a one-time job.

Another important difference is that CAT tools don’t work on a word-for-word basis. This means a translator can confirm more meanings for the same word in the memory. Take the word “well” for example. Does it mean the state of something being good or a water hole in the ground? Inside of a CAT tool, you can mark that it means both. The next time it appears in a text, translation memory will offer both options and suggest one based on the previous context.

The importance of translation in business

We all know that translation is a window into the world. After all, removing the language barrier is the first step towards communication. Take a look around you. How many products do you have in your home or office that aren’t from your own country? Also think about all the software you use daily – what part of the world does it originate from? How many languages is it available in?

The fact is, the internet gives us all access to the entire world, including businesses. Today, more and more companies decide to offer their products and services online. Some also open physical stores around the world. That’s why you can have furniture from Sweden, use software from the US, and wear shoes made in China.

Chances are, you came across all those products online and read about them in your own language. That’s because every executive knows getting new customers requires reaching them first. You could have the best product in the world, but there’s no use if nobody knows about it. You might be the best employer ever, but language barriers discourage applicants. Simply put, translation brings your message closer to the people you want to reach.

A human is the most accurate translator

A translator’s job isn’t to translate words, it’s to translate meaning. That’s why a database simply isn’t a match for a brain. To illustrate the problem, imagine the following situation. Your favorite song isn’t in your language. You have no understanding of the words in it. Yet, you’ve heard the song so many times you memorized the lyrics by sound. Based on that, would you say that you understand the language?

The same goes for machine translation. Recognizing patterns doesn’t imply knowledge. The reality is, there is no such thing as free translation. Full stop. Using online translation services means sacrificing quality for speed. And while it might seem easier and cheaper than hiring a translator, it’s more expensive in the long run. Not to mention the fact that it can be embarrassing and have a negative impact on your brand image. Don’t believe me? Read on and find out how other companies missed the mark.

International business translation fails

Marketing your products and services brings in revenue only if it’s done right. If you’re expanding your business to another market, pure translation isn’t enough. Not understanding cultural differences will make you seem tone-deaf. If you don’t take connotations into account, you will be the laughing stock of the public. If you’re still not convinced, take a look at the following examples of translation gone wrong.

  1. Electrolux. In the 70s, the Swedish company decided to expand to the US market. So far, so good, right? Well, they used “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux” as their slogan. Seeing that they’re still doing well these days, it didn’t ruin their business. So why are we still mentioning it today? Because the expression used has a connotation for every English speaker. We’ll leave it up to you to figure out which one.
  2. McDonalds. When the company spread to the French market, they translated the name of their famous Big Mac into Gros Mec. The chuckle factor here comes from the fact that “Gros Mec” in slang translates to “Big Pimp”.
  3. HSBC bank. Today, the UK-based company serves countries worldwide. In the early days of expansion, they used the slogan “Assume nothing”, emphasizing their transparency. But, it translated as “Do nothing” in many countries – not really what you want from a bank, right? They didn’t think so either. That’s why they spent millions of dollars to correct their mistakes and came up with a whole new slogan.

As you can see, bad translation will cost you reputation and a lot of money. Corporations can afford to fix those mistakes later, but your business might not. Remember how we said pure translation isn’t going to cut it? That’s because you also need to localize your message.

What is language localization?

In short, localization is what the companies above failed to do. It’s the process of adapting the message to another culture. Every good translator knows that translation and localization go hand in hand. That’s because a good translation means considering culture, connotations, and slang. This requires years of understanding, which a machine can’t do.

All things considered, it’s no wonder machine translation tools are free. After all, you get what you pay for – zero human experience and word-for-word transfers. It’s true that MT evolved from when it first started. It’s also true that Google Translate is much more accurate than it was. But can tools keep up with language and become as good as a human translator? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Why you need a human translator

  1. Machines don’t understand context. Saying “yes, of course” carries a different meaning depending on the situation. For example, if you agree with someone, then it’s positive. When you don’t, it’s negative. If you send it via message, it can go either way depending on the person reading it. That’s because humans understand that context plays a huge role in how a message comes across.
  2. Machines can’t translate style and tone. Writing style and tone are inherently human characteristics. Think about your team and choose two people who have different communication styles. Imagine that both of them need to tell you that sales have dropped and it’s your fault. Who will get straight to the point and who will try to soften the message? You see, those two people will not make the same word choices to transfer the same meaning. An algorithm, on the other hand, makes choices based on a set of rules.
  3. Languages have varying levels of formality. Unlike English, many languages use different pronouns for formal and informal settings. Let’s take a look at what happens in French. If you’re talking to a friend, you will use “tu” because it’s an informal way of addressing someone. But if you’re writing an email to a customer, you have to use “vous” to show respect. So how does Google Translate handle this? Apparently, it decides whether you’re being formal or not based on your punctuation.

  4. Machines don’t understand cultural differences. The easiest way to test this is trying to translate a joke that includes a pun into another language using MT. The only time it works is if the two languages are so similar that they rely on the same punchline. As opposed to MT, a human would adapt the joke so it stays funny.
  5. Machines have zero common sense. There are phrases that you can’t translate to another language and keep the meaning. These include proverbs, idioms, and other historical expressions. A human translator will find the equivalent in the language they’re translating to. If there is no equivalent, they will translate it descriptively. A machine will translate it word-for-word, missing the whole point of the expression.

  6. Machines don’t understand there’s no such thing as synonyms. The fact is that there are no words in a language that mean the exact same thing as another word. When that happens to be the case, one of the two words disappears from the language and the other stays in use. If you don’t believe it, take a course in language economy. What linguists mean by synonyms are words that have similar meanings, but not the same in all contexts. But even without linguistic knowledge, one thing’s for sure: mermaids are not there for your safety.

  7. Machines aren’t creative. You’re translating your marketing materials and don’t like the length of a sentence? Well, if you use machine translation, too bad. Decided to get a real translator instead? No problem, here you are, nine other versions!
  8. Language evolves faster than databases. It took years and years of work to get tools to replicate language in a way they do today. And let’s face it, it’s still far from perfect. As anything that’s in constant use, language evolves. Words get new meanings, we come up with new ones, expressions change. Humans who use the language daily adapt faster than an algorithm.

How much does it cost to hire a translator?

If you were looking for a definitive number, I’m sorry to disappoint you. The fact is, anyone who’s ever hired a translator knows that a lot of factors determine the final price. These include:

  • project size
  • required languages
  • industry
  • number of repetitions
  • level of creativity

If you need to assess your project cost, contact the translator. Granted, you could try figuring it out from the price lists available online, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll be right. After all, you need a correct number so there’s no point in wasting time on ball-parking it. Whether you’re hiring a translator for the first time or not, here are some other things you need to consider.

A good translator doesn’t charge by the hour

There’s no point in even asking. The price is always based on the number of characters – whether it takes one hour or five is irrelevant. Why? Because you aren’t paying for the hour it takes to do it now. You’re paying for the years of experience that made it possible.

No body, no crime

Or, in this case, no document, no price estimate. And that goes for confidential documents as well. Think of it this way: you wouldn’t expect a real estate agent to guess the value of your house without seeing it. You shouldn’t expect a translator to guess your project cost either. If you do, you might end up paying more than you hoped for.

You’d better shape up (your document)

Before you send your documents to a translator, make sure the originals are at their best. This means your sentences need to be clear, unambiguous, and coherent. Editing for clarity isn’t a translator’s job. That said, most will do it anyways to keep the integrity of the translation. But what if even the translator doesn’t understand what you meant? You’ve guessed it – there will be questions you’ll need to be available for. To save both your and the translator’s time, have another look over the originals and ensure they’re precise.

Plan ahead

Need to have your website translated in one week? No problem, but it will cost you more. Urgent translations always come with a price increase. So do the ones that include specialized terminology and uncommon language combinations. 

Wrapping up

We all agree that machine translation helps us in everyday life. The question isn’t whether you should use it or not. It’s when you should use it and when not. And while it is great to have a tool to help you find your way around a foreign country, you should leave it at that. Using MT to translate contracts, marketing materials or your website content is dangerous. If you’re serious about your business, you’ll get a real translator to do the job. If you’re willing to risk it, go right ahead – but don’t say I haven’t warned you.