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May 2011

The Cost of Free Translation

Posted by Annemieke, May 24 2011

More and more websites are now offering ‘free translation’ tools, or Machine Translation. You might be wondering what these tools can and can’t do, and whether you should consider using them.

In our opinion, no self-respecting translation company would offer so-called free translation. Just as a Michelin-star chef wouldn’t serve up boil-in-the-bag coq au vin, a translation company that is serious about producing high-quality translation would not recommend free translation.

The reason is twofold. First of all, translation is a complex process. If you have ever attempted to learn a foreign language, you’ll know that not every word has an exact equivalent in the target language. Some words do, like ‘Rain’, ‘Cat’ and ‘Dog’, but try translating ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ word for word into any foreign language and people won’t know what you’re talking about. Trying to outsource this complicated process to an automated tool will cost your company money.

For example; if you’re thinking of buying a television and the description reads ‘You let enchant through the tremendous performances and enjoys brilliant SUFFERED design-technology in an ultraplat of high-quality aluminum’ (as rendered by one popular translation tool), would you really go ahead? No, you wouldn’t. When customers read unprofessional copy, they will not trust the product or service offered, and buy elsewhere.

Secondly, you might consider the impact they have on the overall translation industry. When more companies decide to use automated translation, there is less work for professional translators as a result. Competition amongst translators gets more fierce, rates drop and ultimately some of the most experienced, highly educated and skilled translators will decide to leave the profession in search of a more financially rewarding career. Without these translators, the quality of translation will inevitably deteriorate, new translators will not be trained as thoroughly as the generation before them. It paints a pretty bleak picture for the integrity of language and meaning around the world.

A translator needs an intimate knowledge of the language and culture of the market for which the text was originally written, as well as subject knowledge in their chosen field and serious research skills. The translator then needs to render the source text into a different language without losing any meaning, factual or otherwise, and write the final translation as if it was originally written in the target language and specifically for the intended audience.

Machines lack creativity and the ability to put content into context. When a word is used that can have more than one meaning, machine translation tools do not know which one is meant. When an equivalent is not available for a certain colloquial word or humorous turn of phrase, some of the local ‘flavour' of a sentence might be lost. Translators can compensate for this by adapting another sentence, or even a whole paragraph, to make up for this and to retain the overall tone of the text. Automated translation is not capable of adequately achieving this. At least not yet.

If you are concerned that translating your documents professionally will be expensive, look at it this way; translating 1 page of text into 1 language will cost you about £35. If your text needs to be read in several languages, then that probably means that you have spent valuable time drafting the copy or having it written for you. Surely you’d want to maintain that quality in the foreign versions as well? To trust a mechanised translation tool with your valuable copy is akin to that Michelin-star chef shoving a lovingly prepared dish into a microwave oven and hoping for the best.

So what can you use these tools for? Well, they are useful when you quickly need to get the gist of a document. In any case, you should not let a machine translation ruin your carefully crafted copy. Or, as one translation tool puts it, ‘Anyhow you should rent destroy no free translations tool your careful made copy. ‘ Right…

  Posted by Annemieke, May 24 2011