Machine translation: Babel or babble?

Translation agencies relish it, professional translators tremble at the thought of it. Yet, what do machine translations have to offer, and what not?

Translation agencies relish it, professional translators tremble at the thought of it. Yet, what do machine translations have to offer, and what not?

Let’s start right from the very beginning. Before the 1990s, if we wanted to translate a text, we had to consult professional translators trained to use dictionaries and choose the right words. Indeed, since a word often has different meanings, we would have to use the context to find out the right one.

This was a time-consuming job. So, this was also when machine translation was introduced. Getting a quick and cheap translation was the motto, but the result was often very bad quality.

That is why the typical word-for-word translation technique was abandoned. Machine translation became a combination of pure machine translation and human translations. Also Google Translate’s database is filled with translations that have been produced by humans. Take away the human contribution, and it becomes a totally useless tool.

However, it is not because human translations are used in machine translation that machine translation suddenly becomes a valid alternative to pure human translation.


Translation agencies that often use machine translation often talk about post-editing: the work of translators who correct the machine translation and receive at best, half their normal translation rate. What those agencies do not mention, is that these translations are of poor quality even after the correction. The translators in question, who are often not professional translators and only hired for knowing a language, are always coerced into a specific style by the machine translation: the machine’s style. Their task mainly consists of correcting language errors. If they were to translate the text from scratch, the translation would look a whole lot different.

Machine translation has everything to do with money and nothing with quality.

On top of that, we have to remember that machine translation continuously needs less post-editing due to the increasing level of human input. It becomes an easy means to earn money. Software for machine translation is also available for professional translators, often for free. They only need to invest some time. Yet, the professional translators do not do so. With good reason: they prefer quality to quantity. Their quality is exactly what distinguishes them from those who do make use of machine translation.

After some time, machine translation with minimal human input via post-editing may indeed produce an understandable translation, but not necessarily a good translation.

This, of course, does not mean that there is no market for machine translation. Industries that always have the same types of texts (e.g. IT and automobile industries) – where texts of excellent quality are less important and sufficiently understandable suffices – might often end up using machine translation. Nevertheless, there are quite a few conditions: the used terminology must not be ambiguous, there is no room for idiomatic expressions and it does not all have to be perfect. That means, for instance, that legal and marketing documents are, right from the very start, destined to be a failure if they are translated through machine translation.

Problems related to the use of machine translation

It is often forgotten that machine translation assumes that the source text is of impeccable quality. Anyone with experience in the translation industry knows this does not happen often. Bad grammar, spelling errors, missing words, incomplete sentences, they occur very often. A translator can spot and correct these errors and still produce a great translation. Unless of course, unqualified translators are hired to try and correct a machine translation at a very low price; resulting in chaos.

We have not even touched on differentiations, subtleties, sarcasm, idiomatic expressions, ambiguities, puns, word colouring, tone… all of which you will find in texts on a daily basis, but which machine translation cannot handle, and never will be able to handle. Language is simply too complex.

There is also a cultural aspect. There are countries where badly translated texts are easily accepted. However, in countries such as Canada, Switzerland and, of course, Belgium the population is less tolerant. Badly written documents are a disaster to a company’s image. Machine translation is not that different.

Three factors

In the translation industry there is a standard that says there are three factors in a translation: quick, cheap, and good quality.
Two of those factors can be offered, but never the three factors together. That is also valid for machine translation: it is quick, it is cheap, but it is not good.
Whoever tries to convince you of the contrary, is selling marketing gibberish that you quickly regret listening to.

Apart from the quality issue, there are other considerations that need to be taken into account when dealing with machine translation. Think about confidentiality. What happens to your documents that are translated by a translation agency with machine translation? You have absolutely no idea nor control. That does not mean that your documents are being distributed, but the risk is much greater than with a professional translator who works ‘serverless’ on his or her own computer.

Companies using their own database but also external services such as Google Translate, not only receive information from those external services but also send information to them. Confidentiality is not always guaranteed!


When a company receives a translation that was produced using machine translation, does it have a copyright to the translation? Copyright is only applicable if the work is the result of a creative effort and is an original work. In the case of machine translation, there is no creative effort, let alone an original work. Therefore, there is no copyright.

A company that uses machine translation has no legal ground to prosecute people who use the machine translated texts without credit or permission.

I am painting things in black and white here. Then again, whoever is thinking of using machine translation should take all of this information into account.


If you want a high-quality translation, you can only contact a professional translator. Quality costs money and time.

Machine translation can, at best, lead to ‘understandable’ translations. It is the end customer’s responsibility to determine what factor is of paramount importance: on the one hand, there is speed and price and on the other hand, there is professional quality.

Machines translate words, translators and interpreters translate language.