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Are machine translations any good?

My boss wants me to get some letters translated into Spanish to send out to prospects but normal translations seem expensive. My sister says I should use a machine translation like Google to do it. Is that OK?

Hello Milo,

Thanks for raising this question. The whole machine translation issue is a real hot-potato in the translation industry right now. Here’s my take on the debate.

Machine translations are nowhere near as good as human translations and probably won’t be in our lifetime.

However, just because machines can’t compete on quality does not, in my opinion, mean they don’t have a place.

Consider this. Let’s say you are sent a- 100 page document which you must have translated from Japanese to English today in order to assess the threat from a competitor. Assuming there are 500 Japanese characters per page this means the document is around 50,000 characters in length meaning it would take a human approximately 1 month to translate it.

Even if you get a team of people on the job it is not going to happen today and it will cost over £5k at today’s prices.

What if you could have the translation by lunch time for less than £2k? Interested? That’s the power of machine translations, they are fast and much cheaper. Admittedly the quality isn’t great but it is often good enough.

Of course we always use professional human translators unless a customer specifically orders a machine translation.

Occasionally we hear of rumours that one or other of our competitors is selling machine translations as having been produced by a human but I feel the chances of this being true are remote as they would soon be found out and put out of business.

There are various free internet translation resources available. Google’s is the most popular.

There are limitations to the free service however.

The length of the translation is limited and as one can’t add in specialist terminology dictionaries the resulting translation can be incomplete or of very low quality – dangerously low where accuracy is critical such as Medical, Legal, and Military etc.

We have expensive and much more sophisticated machine translation software which does not suffer from the same limitations.

Some customers request machine translations of very lengthy documents in order to determine which parts are of interest to them before commissioning a Standard Business or Business Critical translation of just the parts which they need. The overall cost savings are obvious.

In summary, Machine translations are not great but are often good enough and are much cheaper than human translations. Sometimes machine translations are the only option if speed is of the essence.

So, in your  case Milo I don’t think a machine translation of your letters is appropriate as the translation will be representing you in-front of your prospects. If the quality is bad then it will make your company look unprofessional.

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