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Why Machine Translation Can do You More Harm than Good

As technology marches ever forward towards the singularity – the point at which AI meets and then surpasses human capacity and develops autonomy – we may have become a little bit tech-blind.

The capabilities of our gadgets and software far surpass those of the 90s, let alone the 80s, 70s, 60s…and so on and so forth. We rely on tech for everything – to the point wherein we no longer always even see it

There are, however, still a few things that you really shouldn’t trust to a robot just yet…

Chief among them is translation.

The software just isn’t there yet. You are ill advised to trust the multilingual reiteration of your important documents, website or – really any valuable content at all – to the whims of a bot and the consequences of doing so can be catastrophic to yourself, your personal affairs, or your business.

This is why you need to keep it real

Yes, it’s true, plugging your valuable medical records into Bing or Google Translate seems like a pretty easy solution to a relatively big – and often expensive – issue, but do you really want to run the risk of Google telling your new doctor that you take the wrong drug?

Translations are no joke and are not to be trusted to AI.  A quick Google image search for “translation fails” will show you why you shouldn’t be so quick to place your reliance on a bot.

The human touch

By ensuring that your translator has a pulse that isn’t generated by the power strip on your floor, you ensure that your work has a human touch.

Why does this matter?

People know people better than robots know people. If we accept that language is the essence of interpersonal communication, then we can also accept that we have a unique bond of empathy, tradition and cultural understanding between us – at least most of the time.

The human element is the difference between a website that is warm and welcoming to a new target language visitor because it was properly localised by a professional translator and one that is not.

Robots do not understand nuance. They lack the capacity to empathise and to create a bond. Robots don’t understand idioms, slang, regional colloquialisms or phraseological constructs.

A translator’s job isn’t simply about transposing words. This individual is actually responsible for interpreting each word of text and trying to convey its proper and equivalent meaning.

Human communication is shockingly complex. If you step back and actually think about it for a moment you can begin to see how we have evolved to produce strange series of sounds with our tongues and throats and lips to tell other people what we want, what’s on our mind, or when to run away from the hungry bears.

Computerised translation still isn’t really sentient. It doesn’t know why we do the things we do – only that we do them. It doesn’t understand the value of the citizenship documentation you need translated or why your company needs to tailor its website to a new market in Hong Kong.

Is there a place for machine translation?

You mean other than the rubbish bin?

Yes, actually, there is. Machine translation such as Google Translate is perfectly acceptable for translating single words or short phrases here and there. If you need to know the Azerbaijani word for turnip (It’s şalğam, because we both know you were wondering), you can do that without too much fear.

But you wouldn’t want to use GT to translate your personal records or expand your business in Azerbaijan. For that you would need to use a certified, trained and hopefully experienced professional translator who has specifically studied the nuances and the slang and even history of the Azeri people.

Google Translate isn’t without its uses. It is best suited for tasks such as translating that noodle thing on your online Chinese takeout order menu to make sure it’s gluten free, or checking the different words for “turnip” in every language you can think of – just because you were curious and had too much time on your hands.

Translation software is perfectly suited to giving you a rough idea of a website’s content – but it should not be relied upon for anything that involves a specific, important message. It should not be relied on for communicating your brand’s message. And it most certainly should not be used for anything involving the exchange of money.

Don’t become a meme

If you use anything less than a human translator for your business or website’s globalisation campaigns you may end up ruing the day you decided to expand.

Moves such as this are the kind of thing that turn up on humour pages on Facebook and Reddit in the form of ridiculous memes. A mistranslated campaign slogan can quickly become a reputation-damaging joke if someone who doesn’t understand regional slang attempts to convert their words from English to, let’s say…. Brazilian Portuguese.

In the 1960s when American automobile company Ford began marketing its Pinto model in Brazil, it neglected to do its research – or hire a proper Brazilian Portuguese translator. The name Pinto in Brazil is actually a slang term for a rather less than well endowed man.

Not exactly the message a car company wants to be sending.

The name was ultimately changed to something more appropriate, but not before the damage was done. Making sure that a major product is properly checked out by someone who knew even the smallest bit of Brazilian slang would have saved Ford a lot of hassle.

This was long before machine translation was anything more than a strange prop on Star Trek, but the truth is that it hasn’t changed much today when it comes to the importance of checking things like slang or regionalisms.


Someday machine translation may reach a level at which it is capable of understanding the deepest nuances of the human brain. That day is, however, not about to dawn any time soon.

For now you’re stuck with good old fashioned translators – and that’s a good thing. Not only by investing in an authentic translator are you ensuring higher quality work – you’re also giving yourself a bit more of a human touch.

A good translator will work closely with you to best achieve your needs. They can offer insights and opinions on related topics and will really go the extra mile to ensure that you’re getting the quality you need.