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Human vs. Machine: Clash of the Translation Titans

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Three distinct translation techniques
  • How to decide which technique will work best for your project
  • The strengths and weaknesses of various translation techniques

In classic sci-fi movies, contests between machines and humans almost always end with the machine's demise due to the stress of competing with superior human reasoning power. These days, machines beat humans on game shows, computers win at chess, and the quality of machine translation (MT) improves every year.

Both human and machine translation have a place in our work, and each can be used when taking marketing content global.

Let's take a look at three types of translation techniques, their definitions, and what content they are most appropriate for:

  1. Human translation
  2. Pure machine translation
  3. Machine translation with human editing

1. Human Translation


A professional linguist (most often, an in-country native speaker) reviews your project and, using guidelines agreed on beforehand, translates it to the language you require. The goal is to speak to your audience in the most natural, effective way. You can expect human translations to be free of idiomatic errors and to flow naturally and fluently.

Advertising and marketing projects can be "transcreated," which means using your headlines, copy, scripts, and product names as the starting point. Your material is then creatively translated into culturally sensitive language that will appeal and make sense to your global audience.

Best candidates: Projects that need to convince, persuade, build trust, inspire, educate, entertain, or sell your product. For example:

  • Print and broadcast advertising
  • Marketing and branding materials
  • Store signage
  • Social media
  • Product and brand names
  • Website content
  • Multimedia (e.g., Flash, voiceovers, etc.)

2. Pure Machine Translation


Pure machine translation is a computer-generated attempt to reproduce the language reasoning that human brains perform. Because translation is all about interpretation of meaning, our brains perform loads of cultural assessment, analyzing nuances and expression to fully comprehend language. Our brains are able to assess these nuances and translate them. Machines have not yet been able to do that, even with the simplest types of text.

Rules-based machine translation dates back to the Cold War, but today there's a new way of approaching machine translation called "statistic-based translation."

To perform statistic-based translation, a search engine delves into the billions of words and word pairings on the Web and produces statistically good matches for the way things have been said in one language with the way they've been said in another. And tools are available that apply some grammar rules to the translated material, producing some fairly decent results.

However, you'll still find thousands of often-hilarious examples of the pitfalls and limitations of machine translation on restaurant menus and store signs—and sometimes, in important business communications—around the world.

Best candidate: Personal use. Here are some examples:

  • Looking up a word or phrase and translating it into your native language, or vice versa
  • Travel aid—translating restaurant menus, directional signage, maps, and more
  • Just for fun—tweets, Facebook updates, quick notes to friends or family
  • Getting the general sense of a short piece of text when exact details are not important

3. Machine Translation With Human Pre- and Post-Editing


This hybrid is akin to a cyborg: It's a more serious, controlled machine-translation software used by professionals with lots of up-front prep work.

Here's how it works. A linguist goes through the project first, then "trains" the machine-translation engine to translate properly. For example, the linguist will feed long lists of words with double meanings into the software, essentially tweaking the software's rules to tailor the localization to a specific project or client.

After the material is sent through the software, the linguist will look through the first few thousand words to check for mistakes and, if necessary, will retrain the software to interpret rules correctly. The material will go through again and will be reviewed by post-translation editors who make minimal changes to ensure that the material is technically accurate and understandable to readers.

Those translations will definitely not be at the level of fluency of human translation. But if you don't have the budget to localize those 10,000 data sheets, human-aided machine translation could be a great solution for you.

Best candidates: Large-volume projects of more than 500,000 words

  • Projects that require a very large volume of words to be translated and therefore justify the considerable setup time
  • Straightforward text
  • Technical manuals and data sheets
  • Safety instructions or documents that must be posted by law (or anything that needs to be accurate, but where style isn't the first priority)
  • Customer reviews on your website
  • Large internal documents that are not consumer-facing

* * *

When making decisions about which localization method to go with, give careful consideration to the type, size, and audience of your project; and, of course, keep your customers in mind, too.

One thing's for sure: There isn't a machine on earth that can help you make those very human decisions.

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Ora Solomon is vice-president of operations and sales at Acclaro, an independent translation and localization firm. Reach her via or follow her on Twitter. For more, read the Acclaro blog.

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  • by Kurt Anderson Thu Jul 28, 2011 via web

    Very informative. What type of translation software do you recommend for B2B using technical process products, electronic assembly manufacturing. How would you rate Google Translation?

  • by Val Swisher Thu Jul 28, 2011 via mobile

    Ora - Excellent post. Concise and to the point. I would like to add a few things:

    - In cases of translation of any type, it is very important that you work with your source content to make it "global ready." Global ready means that it was written or edited so that it can be more easily and effectively translated. There are very specific things that you can do to your content to make the translation of your content better quality, faster, and often times less expensive. And, as an added bonus, when you work with your content to make it global ready, it is easier to read in English, too.

    A few examples:

    - Keep your sentences as short as possible.
    - Eliminate idiomatic phraseology that does not translate.
    - Use writing best practices: no split infinitives, missing very parts, and so on
    - As much as possible, say the same thing, the same way, every time you say it. (This can be very difficult when you are writing marketing content. Technical content is easier to work with in this manner.)
    - Use the terms "these, that, this, those" with a noun.

    And more. Bottom line - the better your source content, the better your translation of any type.

  • by Val Swisher Thu Jul 28, 2011 via mobile

    Whoops typo - that was missing verb parts, not missing very parts!

  • by Stephanie Engelsen Fri Jul 29, 2011 via web

    "What type of translation software do you recommend for B2B using technical process products, electronic assembly manufacturing. How would you rate Google Translation?"

    This is Ora's response:
    It’s critical to undergo a thorough analysis of your needs and requirements before making the choice to move forward with Machine Translation (MT). Understanding the purpose of the text (informative, persuasive, legally required, etc.) and then the audience (industrial workers, managers, lawyers) will help you arrive at the best choice. If these are manufacturing products with a potential of injury or death, the importance of human translation (or MT with a full human review and post-edit) is essential. MT cannot be applied in a vacuum whether it is Google Translate or any off-the-shelf MT products (Systran, ProMT, etc).

    As for Google Translate: this is a statistics-based machine translation tool. It does not allow any sort of terminology or stylistic customization. Plus, accuracy and appropriateness of the resulting translations are not guaranteed. Lastly, depending on the volume of the material to be translated, it may not be an effective option.

  • by Kim Mon Aug 1, 2011 via web

    Is the photo used here a stock photo? I'm kind of asking based on Corey's funny slideshow on using stock photos but also because the image seemed like it could have been photographed by a professional photographer.

  • by Bibi Mon Aug 1, 2011 via web

    Hi, Kim.

    Thanks for your question! This photo is from iStockphoto. Here is a link to see the photo details on their website:

  • by Michael Schmidt Tue Aug 2, 2011 via web

    If you are serious about serving international markets in their native languages anything other than a qualified HUMAN translator will (sooner rather than later) get you in trouble. You'd want to hire someone who has actually lived in the country in question and experienced local culture and traditions.

    I find that those who recommend or use electronic translation rarely speak more than a single language and often don't understand the importance of insight into local culture, traditions, slang etc. the kind you only get from living among locals for at least 2-3 years.


    The Danish word "Skat" can mean: Tax, Treasure or "Honey" (as in "Sweetheart"). Take the Danish sentence: "Tag dig af din skat og forkæl hende" - (which means "Take care of your sweetheart and spoil her") - If you use Google to translate it to English you get: "Take care of your taxes and spoil her" .....really???

    or the problem with local slang:
    The Danish sentence: "Det var en god sild" (correctly) becomes "It was a good herring" in the Google translation - great if you're referring to seafood. The problem is that "God sild" (Good herring) also is Danish slang for "A hot chick" - I'm sure you see the obvious risk of offending someone if you get it wrong.

    So let's try a common English expression like "Slam dunk" - If you use Google to translate "The sale was a slam dunk" into Danish, you get: "Salget var en slam dunk" which actually means: "The sale was a sludge canister" ... I don't have to explain the problem here!

    If you want to communicate with international clients in THEIR native language, hire translators (or local ad agencies) who knows local customs, slang and tradition - In the long run it will be much cheaper than the PR budget you'll need to save your butt after making a fool of your company, your brand (or yourself).

  • by Sergio Delher Wed Feb 8, 2012 via web

    very good, i really like this article. I work translating, however too many people think that anybody would translate as long as know the other translated language.
    Any one in need of translating services, please contact me. I live in Mexico but I was educated in USA so definitely know how interpret both languages

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