Are we human? Machine versus human translation

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Are we human? Or is that the name of a song? We’re often asked about machine versus human translation, and a recent project with a client brought home just how easily things can go wrong when using machine translation.

We’ve all be there: who has never been tempted to do a quick search for a forgotten word that you really need to know that very instant. For example, I have done five years of Spanish at school, even had a pen-friend, and I cannot, for the life of me, remember how to say ‘chair’ – and I really need an extra chair in this packed Spanish restaurant. A quick Google search and ah, yes, that’s it – ‘silla,’ finishing with an ‘a’, so it must be feminine – sorted. Or, I really fancy one of those pain-au-chocolat but I have no idea where to find a bakery. I did French at school and dated a French guy/girl for a few months, but the word won’t come back to me. A quick mobile search – here we are, of course! ‘Boulangerie’! I can now find those delicious French pain-au-chocolat I have been craving…

We have all been there, all done it and to be honest, we are still alive, nothing major has happened!

Where machine versus human translation failed

It can be more complicated than that, however. When you have spent several thousand pounds acquiring a state of the art touchscreen system in 19 languages for your visitors, would you really look up a missing word in Google? Surely not. Bemused, amused, angry… how did a part of the human body (back) end up on of these exclusive brand new screens, how did we end up with ‘dos’ in French instead of ‘retour’?! It all started with a small memory lapse. The IT person forgot to give the translation company one word – one tiny little word. The word ‘back’, a button to press to return to information you have seen previously. Oops… the word was necessary to complete the project. A quick Google Translate won’t hurt anyone and no-one will ever notice that I forgot to give the word to the translation agency.

If you type the word ‘back’ into Google and select French, the translation you get is ‘dos’. ‘I’m sorted,’ thought the IT person; the job is done, complete and beautiful. No! This is exactly the type of situation where you do not use machine translation – not even for one small word. When you have spent a few weeks putting together this beautiful project and spent several thousand pounds on getting the language correct, you send it all to a professional (human!) agency who will have it translated (by humans!) and proofread by another professional translator (human, too!).

Would you really Google translate the lease for a house you are intending to buy in Spain, or a medical report if you broke your leg in France and needed your doctor back home to know what was broken? Surely not? This is the way it should be. After all, we are not yet machines, but still wholly and truly human… for a little while longer, anyway.

So to answer the question of machine versus human translation… when investing in a language to sell your business, human always wins.