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  • Writer's pictureHernán J. Droguett

10 Common Pitfalls of Machine Translation

Updated: Oct 25, 2023



Should you use machine translation for your business? The short answer is yes, but there are some caveats. The translated output can be highly accurate (84% according to a study by Weglot), at low or no cost, and done in a short amount of time. Now, what about the remaining 16% that is not deemed accurate? And how truly accurate is the 84%?


Here are some examples of challenges that can occur when using a machine translation service:

  1. Idioms and Expressions: Machine translation often struggles with idiomatic expressions. For instance, if English phrases such as "kick the bucket," "feeling under the weather," or "it's raining cats and dogs," are translated literally, the reader will likely be left utterly confused.

  2. Cultural References: Translating cultural references can be tricky. The translation of "Super Bowl" into some languages may not convey the significance of the American football championship.

  3. Slang and Colloquialisms: Machine translation may not accurately capture the meaning and tone of slang or colloquial language. For example, translating the English slang word "cool" into some languages may result in an inappropriate or outdated term.

  4. Wordplay: Puns and wordplay are challenging for machine translation. Wordplay often relies on multiple meanings of words, which can be lost in translation.

  5. Technical or Industry-Specific Jargon: Specialized terminology used in fields like medicine, law, or engineering may not be accurately translated, potentially leading to dangerous misunderstandings.

  6. Gender-Neutral Language: Some languages have specific gender-neutral pronouns or terms that do not exist in others, leading to incorrect translations when trying to maintain gender neutrality.

  7. Tone and Formality: Machine translation may not adapt to the appropriate level of formality or politeness in different languages, which is crucial in some cultures.

  8. Double Meanings: Words with multiple meanings can be problematic. For instance, the word "bark" in English can mean both the sound a dog makes and the outer covering of a tree. A machine may not discern the correct context.

  9. Subjectivity: Translating text that conveys subjective emotions, such as poetry or literature, often loses the intended emotional impact.

  10. Mistranslated Proper Nouns: Machine translation might misinterpret proper nouns like names, locations, or brands, potentially causing confusion or errors.

These examples emphasize that while machine translation is a powerful tool for basic understanding, it often falls short of conveying the richness and nuances of human language and culture. For critical or sensitive translations, human translators remain the preferred choice.


Bottom line - Machine translation can significantly help with translation costs and speed, but just as importantly, it needs to be used under the supervision of an experienced language professional.


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