Machine translation (MT): when is it OK to use on written documents?

Published on October 17th, 2016

automatic translation

Machine translation and automatic translation is a funny thing in our industry: a powerful tool when used correctly, but equally as dangerous in the wrong hands. So today we’re going to address this by asking when it’s okay to use machine translation for written documents.

The reason we’re looking at documents specifically is because this is where machine translation is most commonly used. It also raises all the necessary questions we need to ask about machine translation and how to use it properly.

Why is automatic translation often used for written documents?

When we use technology for document translation, it is purely to speed up the process. We can do this because text documents involve an editing process, which allows us to correct the mistakes made by automatic translation.

This doesn’t mean we can use translation software for every document project though – and we’ll look at why in a moment. More importantly, machine translation only ever provides a first (and very rough) draft for professional translators to improve upon. Machine translated content is never delivered as the final product; it’s a time-saving tool and nothing more.

So, going back to our question, when is it okay to use machine translation for written documents?

When to use machine translation on text documents

The key to using machine translation is knowing you can’t trust it one bit. You can’t rely on it for quality, and everything it does needs to be checked by at least one other person before it can be ticked off. Which is fine – as long as you understand its limitations.

Think of it as the worst translator you’ll ever use. It makes tons of mistakes and half of what it produces is complete gibberish. However, it’s also the fastest translator you’ll ever come across, and using it in the right situations can drastically speed up the process.

Here are some examples of when it’s ok to use machine translation to produce a first draft of written documents:

  • For large quantities of text documents: Machine translation can provide the first stage of translation for very large projects.
  • For very basic documents: The more simplistic your original documents are, the easier they will be for machine translation to interpret.
  • When the source and target languages are similar: Translating from Spanish into English is far easier than German into Japanese, for example.
  • For internal use: If your documents are only being used within your company, 100% accuracy may not be vital.
  • For very small amounts of translated content: For example, translating a small quote for a news story or a first draft for live commentary.

In all of these cases, it’s still important that any machine translations be checked by professionals. You don’t want to be making business decisions based on poorly translated emails circulating within your company. Or get phone calls from someone’s lawyer because you’ve mistranslated a quote of theirs.

Any software you use is only there to speed up the overall process, not replace it entirely.

When it’s not okay to use machine translation for written documents

Perhaps more important than knowing when to use automatic translation is knowing when you shouldn’t. So here’s another list of pointers, this time for projects where automatic translation isn’t suitable:

  • When it doesn’t speed up the process: You’ll often find automatic translation actually creates additional work for translators/editors, which defeats the whole point.
  • When there’s not enough accuracy for translators to work with: If your machine translations are too jumbled for translators to understand and edit, they’ll be better off working with the original.
  • For creative or complex source material: Complex language or creative material (e.g.: poems or slogans) ask way too much of automatic translation.
  • When 100% accuracy is essential: This is especially true for legal translation, healthcare, safety instructions and projects where people’s lives or interests might be affected.
  • As a replacement for professional translation: Machines simply can’t deliver the quality you need.

First of all, you need to be confident there is enough accuracy in your automatic translations to speed up the process. Otherwise it will only slow the process down and you’ll achieve nothing by using it.

Always remember: automatic translation is never more than a time-saving tool. If it speeds up the first stage of translation on any given project, great. If it doesn’t, then don’t waste your time.

Hopefully, that clears things up on the topic, but don’t hesitate to get in touch if you need more info.

Posted on: October 17th, 2016