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Do I Need Machine or Human Translation? Ask this Question Instead.

Robot vs Person - Why can't we be friends?

Machine translation and human translation shouldn’t be rivals--they’re better off being teammates. But you need to know their strengths, and their drawbacks, so you can better judge when it’s appropriate to use each technique.

This is because there’s no “one size fits all” for translation, and you shouldn’t be after a single solution. You need a strategic combination that plays to the strengths of machine translation and professional translation services. A language services provider can help determine when it’s appropriate to use machine translation and human translation together, and when it’s advantageous to rely entirely on professional translation services.

So the question isn’t, “Which one?”, but “How do I integrate each?” Let’s review the benefits of machine translation and human translation (with the added bonus of translation memory) and highlight when to employ these techniques.

There’s a time and a place for machine translation

Machine translation--translation generated by a computer--is fast, simple, and generally does an okay job. For example, machine translation can be useful for reading communications that require rapid turnarounds, like emails or instant chat messages (more on that in a bit). Often, machine-translated text clues the reader into the basic content and meaning of a document, message, etc.

But language is influenced by culture, and machine translations fail to understand cultural differences. Translations spun by machines often tend to be very literal, lack cultural nuances, and rarely capture the right voice or tone. Plus, you may spend additional resources if machine-translated content is unusable and the original text needs to be re-translated by a professional linguist.

Picture this scenario. You own a clothing retailer, and one of your customer service reps receives an email inquiry in another language from a customer. The rep runs the message through a machine translation tool for a cursory understanding of the customer’s issue; with basic knowledge about the customer’s problem, he drafts a response. He sends his draft to the language services provider you partner with. The language services provider works with qualified linguists to translate it for accuracy and nuance. After the draft is translated, edited and proofed, it is sent back to the customer service rep. Now, the rep sends the final, translated message to the customer in need.

If the customer service rep had generated a translated response using only machine translation, his pleasant, professional message to the customer may have been lost. A bad machine translation can cost you in the long run--there are plenty of translation-gone-wrong horror stories --so organizations should never depend on machine translation alone; there should always be a human translator that can provide context and expert in-language knowledge.

Rely on human translation for critical projects

Human translation should always be used for public-facing and high-risk content (like insurance claim forms or hospital discharge instructions) that requires translation perfection.

Qualified translators understand a language’s grammar and syntax, consider context to make appropriate word choices, and recognize slang, jargon and idioms. They use judgment and discretion. That’s why content translated by a human can feel more personal, crafted and natural.

While machine translation is fast and inexpensive (sometimes even free), human translation will always be more reliable and nuanced. Translations done by a qualified linguist can produce higher revenues by improving customer retention and generate cost savings through accurate translations the first time around.

The support role in the translation game--translation memory

Translation memory is a form of machine-assisted human translation.

This is how translation memory works: Software dissects a document into segments (determined by formatting, length or context), and as the document’s content is translated by a qualified linguist, the software remembers the corresponding translation for each sentence or paragraph. If other documents are uploaded with similar content (e.g., forms that share text), the translation memory springs into action and offers the translator a “hit” for similar snippets of copy. A small change, however, can alter the meaning of a sentence, and translation memory can spot differences between two versions of a text; if the meaning of a sentence has changed, it’s re-translated by the human translator.

The qualified translator is the dominant player here, but the software plays a facilitating role--it aids in accuracy and often shortens turnaround times. Translation memory helps linguists focus on translating new content and only review text that’s familiar. Plus, translation memory creates consistency across all materials, which strengthens brand identity.

There’s a cost advantage, too. Translation memory cuts expenses because there are fewer words for the linguist to translate, and identical content that doesn’t require re-translation produces faster turnaround times.

Get guidance on when you need human and machine translation

We thought perfect machine translation could be achieved in the 1950s--not quite. Today, machine translation is a technology that teams up perfectly with a qualified linguist. Human translators are still best at critical decision-making and adjusting a translation based on context clues and culture.

A “good enough” translation (often produced by machine translation alone) just won’t cut it--language is too important. Partner with a language services provider that not only offers high-quality translation services executed by qualified linguists, but a provider who can also strategically guide you on when to use machine translation (if at all).

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