If you’re at all familiar with the language translation industry, you’ve heard debate about the pros and cons of machine translation (MT), a technology that uses computer software rather than a human to translate text.
Though the technology arrived in the mainstream just a decade ago, it has roots dating back to the 1930s, when a Soviet scientist unveiled a very archaic version of MT to virtually no fanfare. IBM made strides in the 1950s and again in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the most current decade that MT began making rapid strides in ability and precision.
MT is rapidly changing and evolving, but as the software becomes more accurate and reliable, some indisputable benefits have emerged. While MT isn’t right for every translation scenario — and has not reached the point where it can completely replace human translation — it speeds up translation and cuts translation costs.
FASTER TRANSLATION WITH MT
MT can translate documents in about half the time a human can, making it appealing for projects that need a quick turnaround. When time is short and only an approximate or summary translation is needed (rather than a perfect one) machine translation is a popular alternative to human linguists.
Machine translation is also ideal when you just need to scan a document to find certain passages, sections or pages to translate. Having a person translate the entire document when you only need a few sections here and there is laborious and a waste of time and resources. MT can skip right to the parts you need.
That being said, you’re almost always sacrificing considerable quality for those faster speeds and turnaround times. Translations will be largely understandable, but they won’t be precise or professional. Without post-editing, a native speaker would find the translated text rough and, most likely, bothersome to read.
MT COST SAVINGS
Time is money, right? The faster you can turn around translated work, the more time there is to focus on other company initiatives. Indirectly, MT can also improve the bottom line by improving communication with employees or customers.
Most importantly, though, MT is less expensive simply because it’s the work of a computer, not a human being. Like any human task that’s eventually replaced by a machine, the cost dramatically declines without the need for labor.
Linguists are educated professionals, so they command a high salary. In the United States, the average linguist makes more than $63,000 per year. Reducing or removing that expense can lead to significant cost savings.
MAKING THE MOST OF MACHINE TRANSLATION
You’ve likely heard strong arguments in favor of either MT or human translation. Machine translation is cheaper and more efficient, as we’ve discussed, while human translation is more accurate and professional. Both sides have merit.
Until MT advances beyond its current capabilities, the best strategy for most companies is a combination of machine and human translation. Save money where you can when precision isn’t required but spend when accuracy is important to convey the right message and strike a professional tone.
As a general rule, avoid MT-only translation for customer-facing information, including legal documents, product or patient instructions, warranty information, website copy and more.
More often, companies are relying on MT for an initial draft of the translation, then using professional linguists to edit and improve that content for publication. There you have the best of both worlds. Using MT as a first step cuts the time a linguist has to spend on each translation project, thus reducing costs, but post-editing by a human ensures that the final product is polished and professional.