What Machine Translation Cannot Do

Machine translation (MT) can be a handy tool when used properly. The key is understanding when to use it, but also understanding its limitations. To know when to use MT, it is important to know what it is. In its simplest terms, MT occurs when a computer translates a text without a human translator’s involvement. Current translation software tools often have a form of MT embedded within them, so many translators do use this functionality to begin their translation work, however it is merely a tool and should not be treated as a solution.

MT can do various things. It has the ability to scan common grammatical rules and even specialized dictionaries related to the text type. Another type of MT utilizes corpora from numerous texts already translated and available. It basically pulls from these documents and tries to detect patterns associated with the various sentences in that particular text. Once it detects these patterns, it “guesses” what the most accurate translation should be.

You might ask, “If such an intelligent software exists, why hire a translator at all? Doesn’t the software do all the work?” Quite the opposite. Machine translation is a great starting point when used correctly. However, every language has its own nuances and can be ambiguous in nature at both a syntactic and lexical level. The use of MT increases the risk of missing the nuances and ambiguity. A human translator is fluent in both languages and therefore understands the importance of maintaining grammatical and lexical accuracy while still ensuring no meaning is lost during the translation. While MT can extremely helpful during the translation process, using it alone is not a solution and often results in a subpar translation, if not a complete mistranslation, at times.

One of the benefits of MT software is that when a translator uses MT in the translation process, it often leads to faster delivery. Since some of the segments not already translated by the translator’s translation memory (TM) can be pre-translated by the MT software, it allows the translator to review these segments and make changes as necessary, speeding up the process. The result is that your text can be delivered back to you quicker than if the translator were working without the additional tools, and you can rest assured that the translation is accurate and conveys the intended meaning of your text.

The automatic translation of a web page is a great example to use when displaying both the strengths and weaknesses of MT. If you’ve ever read an article online that was originally written in another language, your browser may have suggested that you translate it to English. Google Chrome, for example, uses Google Translate to do this. Google Translate uses a version of MT to automatically translate the web page to English so that you are able to read it. Most browsers have a similar function, though they may use different translation software to achieve the end product.

While some sentences may be surprisingly accurate, one can easily notice that web pages translated with these tools alone often display poor grammar and sentence structures. Machine translation can convey the main idea of an article, but it may not deliver it with precision. In a recent Chinese news article, for example, a translated sentence reads, “Xi Jinping run the test area for great concern, repeatedly giving directions and instructions.” Combining the sentence with the others around it, we are able to get the gist of its meaning through context and inference. However, we can also see where the translation contains poor grammar and word choice with “Xi Jinping run the test area for great concern.”

While MT can help provide you with an idea of what is being said, it’s important to remember what it cannot do for you:

  • MT cannot proofread the web page to make sure the translation is accurate.
  • It cannot always accurately choose between two meanings when the original word has a homonym.
  • It may not recognize set phrases and sayings, resulting in a translation that could be too literal.
  • It will not recognize many nuances of the original language, often losing some of the meaning in the process.

So, while reading through a translated web page, it would be best to fact check something that seems odd or out of place; it may be an inaccurately translated sentence. And if your company is looking to translate a text, we highly recommend hiring a professional translator or translation agency to ensure a correct and precise meaning is conveyed at all times. After all, your brand is on the line.

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