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  • Writer's pictureHernán J. Droguett

How good (or bad) is machine translation?

You've likely heard of Google Translate - possibly from a friend who used it on a trip overseas or as an example of poor-quality translation.

Google Translate first went live in 2006. Since then, it has become the world's most popular language translation tool, used by over 500 million people daily. Along with the increase in popularity, there has been a significant uptick in accuracy in Machine Translation (MT). Other platforms have entered the MT scene - Deepl, Amazon Translate, and Microsoft Translator, and offer free versions or paid plugins or widgets compatible with popular content management systems like WordPress or Drupal.

Should you use machine translation software 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%?

Some businesses now use translation widgets on their websites - like the business below, in my beautiful town of Spring Hill, Tennessee (the street number has been removed). Here's a screenshot of the store's location and the automated Spanish translation.

Translation widgets use machine translation, a tool that automatically translates an entire webpage into the selected language. As explained earlier, the quality of the translation can be high, yet, as in this case, it may contain some errors. The address of this business is ABCD Port Royal Road, no matter the language. Some translators call this the "Mail Carrier's Law," which indicates that a street address should not be translated so that any individual can identify it. The picture on the right shows ABCD Camino real del puerto - an automated translation that will lead no one to their intended destination. This confusing address is what the live website currently displays.

Here's another example from an online form to schedule appointments. I would direct the reader's attention to the third field on the left side.

Hora preferida asks for a morning or afternoon/evening preferred time. The English options are "AM" or "PM," yet the automated translation misinterprets "AM" as "I AM." So instead of a Spanish equivalent for before noon, we are left with "soy" (I am.)

One final sample of MT gone wrong. This time from a landscaping service.

Translators may have long discussions debating the quality of the translated text above. Yet, there are no two ways about the word "quinielas." The English original is "pool packages," but the automated translation took the reader from landscaping to the world of organized betting! In English, the word "pool" can be used to describe a natural or artificial place to hold water as well as a total of various amounts of money or resources. In Spanish, the former would be a piscina or alberca (what this landscape website should have gone with), and the latter a quiniela.

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.

Ready to learn more about translation? Let's chat!

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