Free Online Translation: Friend & Foe

When to use these services and when to steer clear…

A Chinese pharmaceutical company made a significant investment to send a team to a large international medical conference. They submitted their product description in English and waited for other companies to contact them. But none did. Why? They had translated their information using automatic, free translation software. With no native English speakers on staff, they had no way to know that the software jumbled their information so much that the other company representatives simply could not tell what they were promoting.

All advances in technology need to be examined carefully to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Central air conditioning is wonderful, but it hasn’t caused us to abandon box fans and opening our windows. A kitchen gadget that takes longer to set up than to use shouldn’t replace a simple knife.

The trick is knowing when to use the new technology. The decision to choose free online software for translation is made easier by remembering two things:

1. Need

2. Native language

If you find a potentially useful article online in Hindi or if a potential business partner sends you an email in Russian, open up Google Translate. These two examples fit both rules: You and your staff are the only ones who need to see the online translation, and that translation is in your native language. The free flow of information is enhanced by our ability to grab words in almost any language and read them in our own language.

This is technology working well. Years ago, Tembua routinely translated faxes and marketing emails and even an off-the-wall marriage proposal because the recipients couldn’t read the language. Today, we refer clients to one of the many free translation sites when they need only to get the basic gist of what a foreign text is saying. It’s not good business to charge our clients for something they can do themselves for free and with very little effort.

These free translations let our clients know if professional services are required. The situation might be online research in basic preparation for a financial move or information about a new device on the market in another country. Tembua provides the level of translation necessary for our clients to make decisions and, perhaps, invest money.

Perhaps you need a translation into a foreign language for something personal or silly. Again, this can be the perfect situation for online translation. Make sure, however, that bad translation is not going to ruin an occasion or insult a friend. Recently, Tembua was asked to review an automatic translation of a children’s book done as a gift. The linguist assigned told us not a single sentence in the translation was readable, let alone accurate. If the person preparing that gift had been a native speaker of the language of the translation, she would have recognized immediately that it was a bad idea.

Indeed, using automatic online translation to move a business document into a language that you do not know is never recommended. This is particularly true if the text will be published. To prove the point, take a page from a foreign website and have the software translate it into English. Would you let a text like that out the door?

As another example, read the English materials that appear on some foreign websites. Some are barely decipherable. (This may be the result of poor English training as well as automated translation. Tembua provides final editing/polishing for non-native speakers who must write in English for their jobs.)

Tembua’s clients in the biomedical sphere are well aware of the problems online translation can create. Our company recently translated a website for a medical device client who couldn’t understand why no inquiries were coming from China. They contacted us after a kind Chinese doctor told them the Chinese on their website made no sense at all.

We can show the rules above as an informatic:

For me                                        For others

-> Native Language                                    Yes                                              Maybe

-> Non-native Language                           For fun                                       No

Proprietary materials should never be submitted for online translation for the sobering reason that some translation sites capture all phrases entered and use them to improve their algorithms. Any material entered into these sites could be disseminated to other users without your knowledge or control.

We encourage you to use a reputable translation vendor because some low cost providers are now presenting the output of free online translation as their own work–and charging their clients.

Free online translation is a wonderful advance in world communication. It is gradually fitting into our industry as the helpful tool it can be, rather than a central solution. The day may come when all languages can be handled accurately a la the universal translators in Star Trek. Today, however, while low-level linguists and bottom-feeding agencies are rapidly falling off the grid, top-notch professional linguists have no fear of being replaced by a machine.

This article is the result of a question from one of our clients. Do you have a question? I’d love to hear it!

–Patricia May President/CEO


About tembua

Tembua: The Precision Language Solution provides comprehensive linguistic services for 100 languages to private industry and government agencies on a global scale. Services include document and website translation and localization; conference and 24/7 telephonic interpretation; glossary development; proofreading, text adaptation, editing, multilingual design and DTP; transcription; technical / custom authoring editing, foreign search engine optimization; translation memory management; subtitling.
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