Why you cannot rely on machine translation

What would a machine feel by looking at the birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli? Nothing! A specialised program could tell you what was drawn, the technique and material used, but it would fail to understand the emotions and the beauty which emanates from the art work. The same is true with language.

Language does not only convey information, it also carries emotions. If Les Misérables of Victor Hugo had been written by a machine it would be a painful read, like opera sung by your satnav, and poor Cosette’s plight would fail to get your attention.

This is also the case for your corporate communications would they be press releases, advertising or research paper, they convey a message aimed at humans with the objective to convince, attract or raise awareness, by producing an emotional response in the reader.

Since there is no perfect equivalent from one language to the next, a translator makes a conscious choice in determining the best “equivalent” in a target language, taking into account the objective, the target audience, the context, etc. In fact, if you gave 10 different translators the same piece to translate, you would get 10 different translations, and they would all be correct.

If that piece was given to a machine translation (MT) it would lose that editorial touch and would be extremely linear. While improvements over the years have made MT increasingly reliable in translating the overall message, especially if English is one of the languages (more data is available online for MT), it always fails to feel and sound “natural”.

When to use Machine translation

This doesn’t mean that MT has no place in the world. It is a remarkable tool which is available 24/7 for anyone needing a quick translation (think Google Translate). Since it can access content online from a wide range of languages and sources, with big groups such as Google and Facebook investing millions in AI and new algorithms, the quality of MT has indeed improved over time.

It allows to get the gist behind a text, or provide access to documents that are not worth being translated professionally. However, to obtain a professional results and ready to publish content (corporate communications, website translation, marketing material, etc.), it is critical to call upon the services of professional translators.

What you need to know about translation services

How are language services charged?

Generally, translations are charged per source word. If the content requires editing, desktop publishing, transcreation and/or extra research, an hourly rate and/or further charges could be applied.

Other TSPs might also charge per target word (number of words in the translated document, on the basis that a document translated from English into French for example will increase by 30% and that that should be priced in).

It is advised to discuss billing methods with your provider for each project.

How many words can a translator translate per day?

With over three years’ experience, a professional translator can translate between 1,500 to 2,500 words a day. However, the technical nature of a document, its formatting and other factors should be taken into consideration.

What is a good translation?

There is no “right” translation since there is no perfect equivalent to express a concept or idea from one language to another. Just as one can express the same idea in a wide range of ways in the same language, there is a wide range of ways in which it can be translated.

However, a good translation needs to, but is not limited to:

  • answer its intended purpose;
  • respect the technical terminology;
  • be accurate;
  • clearly present the message and nuances of the source text;
  • sound native and be culturally appropriate;
  • use the right tone and style;
  • mirror the editorial spirit of the author.

What makes for a successful translation project?

  1. Plan ahead. Include translation as an element of your overall project workflow and not something to tack on at the end of production! That way you can anticipate costs and keep the project on budget.
  2. Pay attention to the source content. Have a final version of the source content revised for style, consistency, and readability before you submit it for translation.
  3. Start with specifications. Project specifications must be developed during project initiation and used throughout the rest of the project. Specifications are the statement of the requirements, terms and conditions as specified in the client-TSP agreement.
  4. Provide supporting material to your translator(s). Any content previously translated and published can help your translator(s) understand your preferences in style and terminology.
  5. Work with the same translators. Working with the same translators will result in translations which improve over time as the translator becomes increasingly familiar with your company’s objectives, identity and preferences.
  6. Provide feedback and final content. The only way to improve translations is by communicating your feedback (e.g. amendments and corrections) to your translator(s). You might have only made stylistic changes, but even those can be useful and can be integrated into your translation memory.

What is the role of the translator and what are his/her qualifications?

The translator is tasked with carrying out the whole translation process and delivering a complete, high- quality piece of work that meets the requirements defined by the project manager.

The translator needs to follow specifications carefully and precisely. However, by using his/her professional expertise, he/she might decide to challenge or ignore the specifications in order to provide a quality translation. If the translator does not agree with the project specifications or does not believe to have the required subject matter experience, it is his or her ethical obligation to discuss this with the project manager rather than deciding unilaterally to ignore some aspect of the specifications. Recommended hiring requirements for translators include among others:

  • University degree in languages and/or translation;
  • Certification by a professional association affiliated with the International Federation of Translators;
  • International certifications evaluated on an individual basis;
  • Work experience (at least 5-7 years);
  • Participation in professional development activities;
  • References (TSPs check references from previous employers or clients, especially if they are freelance translators).

We have bilingual staff, surely they can translate?

Many people assume that anyone with language skills can produce a good translation and therefore even extremely sensitive documents often end up in the hands of someone with absolutely no translation experience.

Although this might seem like a good (and inexpensive) idea, the consequences can be terrible. Translation not only requires excellent knowledge of both languages in question (especially the target language contrary to popular belief), but also a deep understanding of the subject of the document (whether financial, legal, medical or other). It is also necessary to master translation techniques and concepts as well as syntax and spelling. It takes years to achieve a good level of skills, and one might say that there is no perfection in translation and that, as such, the learning curve never flattens.

What is a translation memory?

Most professional translators use CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) software. CAT software, such as Trados Studio or MemoQ, provides the translator with a set of tools to help them in their task. Documents are analysed, segmented and then presented into two columns, one containing the source text and the other the target translation. As the translator fills up the blanks, each segment is saved into a translation memory.

If a segment repeats itself in another project or in the same document, the translator can choose to automatically apply the previously translated segment or adapt it to fit with the new context if necessary. Most translators will provide discounts based on the amount of repetitions. Therefore the more you translate with the same translator, the bigger the translation memory and the potential discounts. Furthermore, overall consistency within the different texts is increased. It is also possible to update a translation memory with your amendments or corrections, making it easier to improve the quality over time.

Avoid the bottle neck effect

Managing a marketing campaign on multiple markets is extremely challenging. The ever growing number of markets means an ever growing list of collaborators involved in the production of your content and therefore a mail box which fills up faster than you can handle it and a phone which never stops ringing.

On the translation side of things, you might be experiencing this:

Content is created and sent to you

You send content to graphic designers for integration into your template(s)

You send content to translators 

Translated content is sent back to you 

 You forward it to your colleagues in each market for a final check

They send you their changes 

You forward the changes to the translators

They send you back the final versions

You forward the translations to the graphic designers

Graphic designers forward you their integration

You forward it to your colleagues

They find mistakes made by the graphic team who do not speak the local language


In an ideal world, your translators, graphic designers, international colleagues and content writers would all be sitting around your desk, but this is never the case.

Fortunately, cloud technology is making this a close reality thanks to virtual workspaces. The process is already there, you know who needs what and who does what. Your company probably already has a platform in place or your translation provider might be able to provide you with access to one, in any case there are many options online (we personally use Onehub, but others like Basecamp are also great).

Create a few folders, brief everyone on the process, dump your files and let everyone collaborate directly on the platform. No more forwarding questions, answers, content, corrections, etc. and you can keep an eye on the entire process. And here is the result:

You send the content

It is created and published

You concentrate on your next project