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Is using machine translation a viable option for your business?

With machine translation cheap, easy, quick and readily available for anyone with internet connection, more and more businesses are using machine translation tools for a wide range of reasons. But machine translation also has an unfortunate reputation for being a little unreliable. So where are the areas in which your business can make use use free translation, and what are the areas for which you should turn to the professionals?

Machine translation has come very far in recent years

Some of the more recent developments in AI and machine translation are very impressive. The Pilot Earpiece, which is strongly reminiscent of the universal translator as seen in Star Trek, promises “A world without language barriers” to users. As the world’s first translation earpiece, the Pilot can translate one language into another and vise versa in real time.

Meanwhile Google and Facebook are both venturing into the world of AI for their translation software. Google’s GNMT (Google Neural Machine Translation) has been called “really really accurate” by the Washington Post, and Wired have gone so far as to say that the Facebook translation tool “could lead to translations that actually make sense”.

The pros

The pros of machine translation are fairly straightforward; most softwares cost nothing to use, they deliver fast results, and they’re easy to use. On the topic of machine translation, London Translations, a professional translation company, acknowledge: “Sometimes machine translations are the only option if speed is of the essence.”

Indeed, the savings alone that machine translation represents is enough of an incentive for some businesses. They won’t have to foot the bill to train new staff, hire bilingual staff, or outsource and hire professional translators. That, combined with the billable work-hours saved by just copying, pasting and pressing a button, must make the relative cost of anything but machine translation seem high.

The cons 

Unfortunately, the translations that machines produce are limited, and not always the most reliable.

Forget about the 6,000 – 7,000 languages thought to exist; there’s no automated translation tech in the world that is an expert in the comparatively small 1,000 languages that are economically important in the world today. In fact, the most that the more popular online tools, like Google Translate, can handle is about 100.

Even one of the researchers who worked on the GNMT team said that the software “doesn’t have a model of how the world actually works yet.” If a machine with language skills has no common sense, why should we trust it with our high stakes corporate translations?

When can you use which kinds of translation? 

If you’re a small business in need of language skills, the expenses associated with hiring a translator on a regular basis, or hiring bi/multilingual staff may be too much for your company to take. If that is the case, there are certain, low-pressure situations in which machine translation could prove useful.

For example, if you need to translate the occasional email off the cuff, then machine translation could very well give you enough information to get by. If you need to translate a competitors website for internal analysis, then automated translation should work effectively enough for you to do your job.

If you’re looking to have regular contact with speakers of other languages on a casual business basis (provided they aren’t potential customers), then it may be worth investing in foreign language speaking staff, or training staff in the relevant languages.

However, if you are planning on branching out into international markets, then there is no substitute for professional translation services. Translators of quality can not only translate at expert speed and to the utmost accuracy, but they will also localise your translation to your target audience, which is vital. Never forget the mistake made by American Airlines when their non-localised ad campaign telling customers to “Fly in Leather”, a slogan designed to promote their new leather seats, translated in certain Spanish speaking parts of the world as “Fly Naked.”

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