Machine translation is one of the most important tools for language professionals and the technology can drastically reduce the time and costs involved in any given translation project.
Like any tool, you have to know how to use machine translation effectively and this starts with understanding its advantages and disadvantages, which we look at in this article.
Machine translation refers to a variety of computational translation systems capable of converting text or speech into other languages. Google Translate is perhaps the most well-known application of machine translation, built using the latest advances in artificial intelligence.
In practice, machine translation allows you to enter text, a document or speak into some kind of microphone as the input source. This input is then automatically translated into the target language(s) and outputted in the desired format – most commonly text or the original document type.
The latest machine translation systems use a variety of artificial intelligence technologies, including machine learning and neural networks, to constantly improve their output. For example, Google Translate analyses billions of existing translations across thousands of languages to learn from, whilst also analysing its own results to learn from its mistakes.
The technology powering these tools is immense and their capabilities will only improve further in the future, but this doesn’t mean we are on the verge of perfect AI translation.
You might think the best people to ask about the pros and cons of machine translation might be the engineers who develop these impressive tools.
However, as language tech agency that has developed our own machine translation solutions, we are familiar with both the drawbacks and the positives this technology and MT solutions have.
First, let’s start with the advantages of using machine translation from the perspective of professional translators and the companies hiring them.
- Fast: Provides almost instant translations.
- Scale: Capable of handling vast amounts of content very quickly.
- Flexible: One system is capable of translating content into multiple languages.
- Usability: Easy for language professionals and everyday users alike.
- Integration: Language pros can use machine translation to speed up their workflow.
- Automation: Automating the first stage of translation makes the whole process faster and more affordable to the end client.
These advantages all contribute to creating a more efficient translation process, allowing translators to automate the first step of translation and edit the output to produce the final content faster. This reduces turnaround times and allows professional translators to deliver 100% quality faster and at lower rates than they would without machine translation.
The main disadvantages of machine translation are all related to the quality of output:
- Quality: Even the best AI translation tools are far away from matching the quality of professional translators.
- Consistency: Quality varies greatly depending on the complexity of input language and the linguistic distance between the source and target languages.
- Word-for-word output: Despite improvements, algorithms still produce outputs largely consisting of word-for-word translations.
- Grammar: Although this is one of the biggest areas of improvement in recent years, grammar remains a challenge for machine translation, especially between languages with significantly different grammar systems.
- Context: Again, AI technologies have dramatically improved contextual understanding but the end results are far from matching human capabilities.
- Nuance: Algorithms struggle to determine and replicate the nuances of human language.
Even with all of the advances in artificial intelligence over the past few decades, the quality of machine translation output has only marginally improved compared to the capabilities of professional translators.
This shows how complex language comprehension is and why the human brain is still the most powerful computer when it comes to the more nuanced aspects of communication.
Discussions about the pros and cons of machine translation suggest the technology is competing against human translators. This isn’t helped by the common media narrative of translation technology one day replacing humans – something we still don’t know is even possible, let alone achievable in the near future.
For now, the reality of machine translation isn’t replacing humans but acting as a tool to enhance the performance of professional translators.
If we look at the strengths of machine translation (speed, scale, flexibility, etc.), the technology can help professionals achieve more in a shorter space of time – in other words, do more for clients faster and cheaper than previously possible.
When it comes to the disadvantages, this is where the human translators step in to review the output and bring it up to the required quality. Even if the technology only manages to translate 20% of a project to sufficient accuracy, that’s still a sizeable reduction in the workload, time and expense of the project – and, in many cases, machine translation can do better.
If you’re ready to make your translation projects more time and cost-effective with translation technology, you can call our team on +44 (0)20 7324 0950 or fill out the form on our contact page.