Wednesday, March 03, 2010

ITI Warning Against Machine Translation

From International Trade

The Institute of Translation & Interpreting (ITI), with 3,000 members worldwide, is one of the UK’s primary sources of information on language services for government, industry, the media and the general public. ITI promotes the highest standards in the profession and its members play a key role in promoting cross border trade in products and services. In this article ITI general secretary Alan Wheatley highlights the growth of machine translation services offered by global phenomena such as Google and Facebook and warns against relying on machine translations for business.

If you’re reading this you probably rely heavily on the Internet for your business. Most do, and not just for emails and finding information, but for strengthening brand awareness, and engaging with stakeholders. The interactive nature of Web 2.0 platforms, social media sites such as Facebook and blogs such as micro blogging site Twitter, mean that it’s easier and faster than ever for businesses to communicate on a global scale.

As an international trader, you’ll appreciate the necessity and benefit of having your company literature – and hopefully by this stage your website too – translated into the languages of your target markets, but what do you do when you begin to embrace social media on a wider scale and set up a company Facebook page, a blog, or a Twitter account?

Google Inc is one corporation who believes that having all your online communications translated into the relevant language/s is important and claims to be the largest free language translation service online. Its Google Translation website lists a total of 52 languages available for translating websites, documents, searches and individual words – and all by computers using mathematical equations, at a click of a mouse, without any human translation. In theory, this means that if you have a corporate blog you can simply paste the URL into the Google Translate facility and your blog will appear instantly in a language of your choice.

Others think it’s a good idea too and have their own translation tools. Facebook Inc – with more than 300 million users most of whom are outside the US – for example, has approached it slightly differently and has crowdsourced its users – again not necessarily professional translators, although some reportedly are – to translate the website into 65 different languages. It goes further. Facebook thinks its pro bono crowdsourced translation approach is so good it wants to patent it. It’s also offering users of Facebook Connect the opportunity to tap into the Facebook community to enlist help translating their sites into any language.

Even Twitter has jumped on the crowdsourced translation bandwagon to have its service available in French, German, Italian and Spanish, in addition to English and Japanese. Twitter plans to enlist its users to offer translations, reportedly alongside some in-house translators.

Where’s the harm in any of this, you might ask? Perhaps none, if all you want to do is exchange a few personal emails with a colleague half way across the world whose language you don’t speak. But if you think you can use Google Translate, for example, to publish your website or blog in other languages, replacing human translation with machine translation, you’re putting your brand and reputation at serious risk.

How can a machine translation ever guarantee accuracy and quality? It’s quite simple – it can’t. Although Facebook and Twitter offerings do have some human intervention in that humans supply possible translations and others vote and the winning vote is applied, there’s still no guarantee that it’s the best translation in that particular context. Translation is a complex task requiring a lot of skill and knowledge. Would you trust an unqualified teacher to teach your children, or an unqualified lawyer to offer you legal advice? If it were easy to speak each other’s language we would all be able to do it by now and the profession of translation, which is almost as old as language itself, wouldn’t exist.

There is much more to being a translator than meets the eye. A good translator has an exceptional command of the native or ‘source’ language and can provide outstanding copywriting, proofreading and editorial services. They usually operate in highly specialist fields and possess the relevant technical vocabulary. They guarantee your communications are fit for purpose. Professional translators also identify unarticulated needs, thanks to their acute appreciation of cultural differences and approaches to business and industry practices.

It’s true that professional translators themselves use technology to speed up their work. However, specialist computational linguists have been working for over 50 years to achieve a high degree of quality and the translators themselves programme their software to suit their particular area of focus. A professional translator would never rely purely on a machine translation because computers will never understand how a language works and therefore neglect the essential aspects of good communication – accuracy, clarity, style, nuance and cultural sensitivity.

Errors in translation and interpreting can waste enormous amounts of time and money, resulting in incalculable costs in terms of misunderstanding and loss of prestige. Professional translators understand this and know business leaders care about the effect their online – and off line – communications will have on the business and will ensure the company communicates effectively to enhance the perception of your brand and reputation.

Sadly, it can be very easy to get it wrong by cutting corners and ITI members are often called in to rectify strategic translation errors. Rather than hiring a professional from the outset, some companies believe they can save money and achieve the desired result by using a machine translation or enlisting someone in-house who just happens to speak the language/s in question.

Poorly translated communications can mean your brand will be poorly perceived resulting in limited or no success, and by not using a professional translator you will not only waste money, but you will also miss opportunities, fail to attract appropriate media attention and damage your reputation. It makes sense to get it right from the outset and call in a professional translator.

To identify professional translators – and interpreters – there are some obvious checkpoints. You can start by confirming qualifications, references and memberships of professional bodies. A professional translator or interpreter will always be happy to provide these. ITI members, for example, demonstrate their commitment to the profession by joining the organisation and adhering to a strict code of conduct. This is essential in an unregulated profession. You can find the award winning ‘Translation Getting it Right’ booklet available in the Advice to Business section of plus a Directory of Members.

You’ll know when you’re working with a professional because he or she will offer consultancy, add value, translate into their native language unless they are multilingual, ensure the end translation is fit for purpose, save you money, help safeguard brand reputation, offer specialist knowledge, request feedback, solve problems, think ahead and advise. No computer will ever be able to do all that!

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Karen said...

Hi there
I'm Karen Floyd - ITI director of communications. Great to see you've used one of our articles, but I'm curious as to how you came about it. I wrote that for a specific publication and I haven't seen it published there. I'd like to know where you picked this up from.
Karen (

Mike Unwalla, TechScribe said...

@Linguanerd: How can a machine translation ever guarantee accuracy and quality?

Use controlled language for the text. Validate the text with a controlled language checker. Use customised software for the machine translation.

(OK, this method is not applicable for the types of content that you discuss in your article.)

Linguanerd said...

Hi Karen,

Follow the link at the top of the posting.. if you wrote it, they sure like hell did not acknowledge you in the publication. I got to read it through a third party RSSing it to me..

Linguanerd said...

Err.. found the RSSed article: Hope that helps..