Machine Translation - What, When, How

In recent years the language services industry has been abuzz with talk of machine translation. Some people, particularly translators, are weary of it and see it as a threat to their livelihoods. Others see it as an easier and more efficient way to bridge the gaps between cultures. Regardless of your feelings about it, machine translation (MT) is here to stay and it is important to understand when and how it should be used and is even more important to understand when it should be avoided like COVID-19.

What it is

Let’s start with what it is an how it works. There are several different types of MT but they all boil down to the same basic idea: a computer program that uses logic and preexisting data to produce a translation. In theory, all you have to do is give the program the vocabularies of each language you want to translate and their respective grammar rules and it should be able to spit out something coherent and similar in meaning to the original. Simple and effective, right? Wrong. Anyone who has used Google Translate to translate song lyrics to another language and back again knows how messy things can get.

When to use it (or not)

Yes, MT can be very helpful for something short and simple, but it’s true kryptonite is creative work. Music, poetry, literature, advertisements, really any written text intended to evoke emotion of some kind is extremely difficult for MT to handle. The intricacies and variables of creative language go above and beyond the programming of MT engines and require a more delicate human touch.

So aside from helping kids with their Spanish homework, when is MT actually practical to use? If you open up a user manual of any kind you will find your answer. It may be difficult for MT to handle creative content, but when the text is simple, repetitive, and consistent MT thrives. A user manual for a tractor, for example, will use the same language, terminology, and sometimes even whole sentences over and over again. This consistency allows MT engines to translate these types of documents with few or no errors.

There are some grey areas that also need to be addressed though. Some types of written content are both creative and highly consistent and repetitive, such as legal documents. Generally speaking, legal texts use the same language and terminology throughout the document and across other documents making it the ideal candidate for MT. The catch is that the intricacies of legal language and the presence or absence of certain legal expressions, concepts, or words between languages makes it extremely difficult to successfully machine translate a legal text.

How to optimize your processes

Now that you know more about MT and have determined that your content can be successfully translated what do you need to do to make sure that the translation is done to the highest quality? The honest answer is that it depends on your specific situation, but here are a few best practices tips to get you started.

  1. Go to a language services provider (LSP). A qualified and experienced LSP, like Syntes, will be able to help you assess your situation and map out the best solution for your particular needs.

  2. Establish a consistent terminology database and glossary. A terminology database and glossary will ensure both brand consistency and translation accuracy. If you have never done this before your LSP will be able to advise you.

  3. Ensure consistent source content. When writing your content make sure that it is consistent in its tone, register, and style. In this situation boilerplate language is your friend.

  4. Post-edit the machine translation. An experienced LSP will advise you to send the translation to a human linguist for post-editing. During this process the linguist will read through the translation and will double check that the meaning of each segment is consistent between the source and target languages.

What now?

Language services technologies and MT capabilities are constantly changing so something that may be impossible or inadvisable today may be commonplace tomorrow. Since using machine translation can be such a boon to your finances it is definitely something worth looking into the next time you need content translated. If you think machine translation could be beneficial to your business or you just want to know more, reach out to us at or give us a call at 303-779-1288.

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