Machine translation: are the savings worth the cost?

July 26th, 2016

Machine translation is on the rise. It’s fast, cheap, and easy accessible. But do the benefits outweigh the risks?

Anyone who has had any experience with machine translation knows that the quality is almost always poor, or even poorer than poor. Translators who accept the challenge of post editing machine translation usually find that most of the text is unusable and needs to be retranslated.

What does human translation have that machine translation doesn’t? Humans. Machines don’t take context into consideration. They do not pick up sarcasm, idioms or famous slogans and catch phrases. For example, we all know that the phrase there’s an elephant in the room is an idiom used to express an obvious issue that no one wants to address. However, a computer engine like Google will translate that literally, and unfortunately, Spanish speakers will have to figure out what un elefante en la habitación has to do with anything.

Although it’s a fact that machine translation is constantly getting smarter and more accurate, it still has a long way to go to compare to human translation in terms of quality. Let’s look at another wonderful example of what happens when you trust a machine with your translation.

A poor restaurant owner in Beijing decided to use a machine to translate the words “dining hall” onto a banner for his restaurant in anticipation of tourist crowds for the Olympic games. The output he saw was Translate server error and so, he put the translation on his store banner, and ended up with the perfect picture for this blog post.