Is Machine Translation Reliable?

Why Not Just Use Google Translate?​

Google Translate is free, and convenient. Why not use it to translate your text? Here, you need to be careful. This is what’s called machine translation, but it doesn’t translate in the truest sense. Google Translate, DeepL, Yandex Translate, and the others output a text that corresponds to your inputted text in special, statistically correlated ways, and now they use something called “machine learning” to improve these correlations over time. But these tools cannot give you a real, reliable translation, for the simple reason that the software so far does not understand the text that it processes. Nor is it designed to do so.

So what should you do with machine translation? Use it when you need to quickly get the gist of what a text says, or when you have an extremely large volume of text to translate and accuracy is not important. So you might use it when ordering from a menu in a language you don’t know, or when you want to know what an article is about.

So when should you not use machine translation? Don’t use it when accuracy is critical—when your business’s reputation is at stake. A colleague of mine summarized this perfectly: “A quality-conscious company understands that the quality of their translated material is a reflection of the company itself.” {Tuomas Kostiainen, English-to-Finnish translator, Translorial, fall 2018, p9} Here are some examples of texts you should not machine translate:

  • a contract
  • a presentation introducing your company to potential investors
  • instructions to the end user or to programmers
  • a description of your product on Google Play
  • a doctor’s report recommending surgery

Some texts outputted by machine translation are in fact accurate translations of their inputs. This often happens for short, simple sentences. But many outputs are inaccurate, or complete nonsense. Look at the examples in the following table. The first entry is an accurate and useful result from Google Translate. Example #2 is hilarious, in my opinion: a “beef wallet”!

Source Text​
Machine Translation
Real Translation
Die Frage ist:​
The question is:​
The question is:​
Rindleder Geldbörse​
beef wallet
leather wallet
Все доступные вам устройства этого пользователя уже добавлены в эту группу.
​All the devices of this user are already added to this group.
​All of this user’s devices to which you have access have already been added to this group.
Hier geht es darum zu erfahren, ob Sie sich im Showroom wohl gefühlt haben.​
Here you can find out if you felt comfortable in the showroom.
What we’d like to find out here is whether you felt comfortable in the showroom.
Обеспечите рост продаж из-за лучшей проходимости касс
Ensure sales growth due to better roadblocks
​Ensure sales growth by improving cash register traffic.
Anlage 1
Anlage 2
Anlage 3
Anlage 4
Anlage 5
​Attachment 1
Exhibit 2
Appendix 3
Schedule 4
Enclosure 5

In example #3, Google Translate simplified the sentence and changed its meaning. For example #4 the context around the sentence was needed to understand the intended meaning and translate it. In #5, Google Translate failed pretty badly. Example #6 is a hilarious case where a colleague of mine, Thomas West, looked at a contract processed by DeepL. What a perfect lack of consistency!

One other issue to consider with machine translation is confidentiality: If you use a free tool like Google Translate online, the sentences you’re feeding into it are retained for future use and comparison. So theoretically, a competitor could type the right phrases in that same online tool to discover some of the sentences you gave it, or maybe discover some of your proprietary information by accident. So your business confidentiality, or your personal data, are not fully secure in this way. I use a paid version of Google Translate with my software in order to save some work typing those shorter sentences that it often renders fairly well. But under this arrangement, Google guarantees confidentiality for all inputted texts.​

Sometimes people ask me whether I feel my job is threatened by machine translation. I reply that machine translation can be useful to me: When it outputs a text that I recognize as an accurate translation, it can reduce the amount of typing I have to do. I think it’s possible that computers might conceivably take my livelihood away, someday. But writing a good, accurate translation requires a high level of linguistic and cultural and social knowledge in the source and target languages, so my guess is that that day will not come during my lifetime. And if it did happen, then most other people’s jobs would be threatened with extinction too.

What exactly do translators do? On another page I offer an inside look.

​​Why hire Ellsworth Language Services to do your translation?

Why Not Let Your Office Assistant Do It?

“Should I let my office assistant translate it? Well, Rachael knows Spanish pretty well. She had four years of it in high school. I’ll just have her do the translation.” If accuracy is important and your company’s reputation is on the line, you need a professional who is translating into her or his own native language. Even if a person is bilingual (natively fluent in two languages), that’s not enough. The translator needs to be fully literate at a college level in at least the target language. There are hundreds of funny stories of such mistakes from the past few decades. One of my favorite cases is the phrase “Air Cash,” which I saw in elegant, shiny metal lettering mounted beautifully on the face of a building in Kyrgyzstan. It was in three languages, including the Russian equivalent “Авиакассы”—so I knew that the intended meaning was “Airline Ticket Office.”

A beautiful example of a mistranslation, gleaming in chrome on the front of a building

​​Why hire Ellsworth Language Services to do your translation?

Why Not Hire a Translator in India or Russia?

Due to favorable exchange rates, professional translators in some countries can offer very inexpensive translations. Just keep in mind that if you need a translation into English, they will not be translating into their native language. One nice example here is the sentence “We assume no liability or responsibility for all the fires or electrical shock caused by improper handling or installation.” This was written by a professional translator who was not translating into her native language. She did not sufficiently understand the important nuances of definite and indefinite in English—so she was accidentally referring to actual instances of fires or electrical shock caused by negligence, rather than hypothetical ones. It would have been better written as “responsibility for any fires or electrical shock.” In addition to such critical errors, non-native translators often write sentences that convey the source text’s meaning accurately but that sound clunky, awkward, or opaque.​​

​​Why hire Ellsworth Language Services to do your translation?