Google Translate: When to Use It and When to Hire Professionals

It would be remiss to say that Google is not one of the handiest tools out there. In fact, how many of us don’t use “Googling” as a verb these days. However, just because the search engine is phenomenal, this doesn’t mean that Google is infallible or that it can do anything you wish it to do. This includes translation. First, we’ll explain a bit about how Google works to translate phrases that people input and how it turns the “translations” around so quickly. Remember, Google is the most widely used search engine worldwide. Therefore, it has an infinite number of resources available instantly and can pull from all of them in a matter of seconds. So, when one goes to Google Translate to see what a phrase, paragraph, website or document means in another language, inputs the text and hits the “Translate” button, the internet-based tool pulls information from sources all over the world wide web to populate terms into a somewhat coherent (but many times not) “translation”. We use the term translation in quotations, because these are not true translations to the effect that those of us in the industry appreciate the term.

Yes, when you want to get the quick gist of a text or phrase, Google Translate might be the simplest and quickest route, but when you really need an accurate and trusted translation, Google is more a foe than your friend. So, beware—what is free is not always best. You get what you pay for (or in this case, don’t pay for).

Here are some instances in which you could use Google Translate and times when it’s best left up to the professionals.

Simple messages (think text messages or informal emails)

Yes, you could go to a translation vendor for these, but if you just want an idea of what the message entails, then you could use the free service from Google. However, if the email is more important to you (either for business or a message that is important for any other reason), it might be in your best interest to contact a professional service.

Ok, we admit it. That’s about the extent that we would suggest using Google Translate, or any other free “translation” tool online. Technology is a wonderful thing, but anyone who uses technology on a day-to-day basis knows that it can be our biggest enemy at times. This often makes me think of the hilarious text messages that are produced from the auto-correct features on smart phones. So, just as there are times that an electronic translator might be a good tool, it is simply that. A tool. It cannot possibly perform all the work that a human brain can.

Adam Wooten of Deseret News writes, “Google Translate and other free online translation tools can be great for instant, informal translation. When expectations are properly set, particularly for low-value text, unedited machine translation can be quite useful. However, when a user overestimates machine translation capabilities, the results can be confusing at best.”

Marketing and informational texts are better left to professionals

Think about the type of phrases we use in marketing materials or that you read daily that include catchy phrases, idioms and colloquialisms. Machines are not apt to pick these up very well. However, the audience who reads the text will know right away if there are errors in your documents or materials within seconds. We often tell our clients that a translation should read just as if it were originally written in the target language. This way, the reader feels like it was written for him or her.

Take the example that Wooten gives in his article “Google Translate has great uses, disastrous misuses”. He talks about a Moscow-based company that paid big bucks for the translation of web pages that were really just a rough machine translation. He adds, “If this marketing company and its clients had expected machine translation, the news would have been acceptable. Unfortunately, the firm and its customers were expecting high-quality translations that captured the nuances of the original marketing text. The need to pay for a complete retranslation by professional human translators was a bitter pill to swallow.”

This happens more than one might think. For every one phrase that a machine can output correctly, there are probably three that have errors. When in doubt, call a professional.

Technical texts should always be translated professionally

We often gets calls from clients who wish to have technical manuals or medical documents translated. We cringe to think that someone might go to a free tool online to translate something so important, but we know that it happens. Either way, we thank our clients for choosing us because we know that they care enough about the text and what they do to use a true service that handles projects with a quality assurance process (with translators, proofreaders and project managers).

If you work for a company that uses technical manuals in a factory, for example, you would not want to be unsure of the translation of your manuals in the event that an employee loses a finger because s/he performed the job as set out in the “translated” manual. If you are a physician and you give your patient instructions on how to take his/her medication, you would never forgive yourself if your patient mistakenly took 11 times a day instead of once a day (“once” in Spanish is “eleven”, however “once” would not translate to “eleven” from English to Spanish). Mistakes like these can lead to life-threatening mistakes. And yes, this does happen.

Luckily, there are many who recognize the need for professional human translation in technical and professional settings. In 2009, Mayor Bloomberg of New York City mandated that pharmacy chains offer translated prescription labels to the top foreign languages found in NYC. However, after a survey by Julia Tse at Sharif and Dartmouth College, many of the pharmacies were found to be using machine translations to get by. Anne Harding of Reuters wrote about Tse’s survey, “Tse looked at 286 pharmacies in the Bronx and found that 75 percent provided labels translated into Spanish. Of those pharmacies providing translations, 86 percent used a computer program to translate the labels, while 11 percent used staff members and three percent employed professional translators. A 50-percent error rate was documented in 76 of the computer-generated labels, including 32 incomplete translations and six major spelling or grammatical mistakes.” What we don’t know is how many of these errors caused problems (or worse) for the patients. When it comes to health care, as well as other industries, translation that is professionally performed can mean long-term monetary savings for all. Having prescription labels and other texts translated professionally the first time is a preventive action for future mishaps.

Do you have an example of a poor machine translation? One that caused problems for clients or patients?