Don’t pay for something that’s free!

Recently, Tembua has had fun presenting lunch ‘n learn events to groups of attorneys. We cater in the lunch, talk to them about linguistic services, and answer their questions. People trained in the law ask detailed and often penetrating questions.

Someone almost always wants to know about free online translation services. And they’re always surprised when I say, “Absolutely! Don’t pay for something you can get for free!”

There’s more to it than that, of course, and when the surprised laughter stops, I go deeper.

People have talked about machine translation since the 1800s, and the first patent was filed during the 1930s. It’s not a new idea. However, progress has been slow, as linguists originally underestimated the depth and complexity of human languages.

When I was an undergraduate studying computation linguistics, we were told that within 5 years, all translators would be out of business. Indeed, machine translation (MT) has come a long way in the decades since I finished my degree, and it can do amazing things today, but the translation industry is larger than ever before. With both options available, how do you know whether MT or human translation is best for a particular application? I lay out this issue by direction and usage.


MT is useful when you want the gist of a foreign text. Or when your online correspondent writes in Hindi. Or when you’re trying to read a possibly important sign in a drugstore while on vacation. The important point here is the direction of the translation: into your native language. Odd grammatical constructions and misuse of synonyms and prepositions won’t bother you as a native speaker. You’ll understand. In addition, a great many MT resources are into English. If you find something where the exact meaning is important—a foreign patent, for example—that’s when you need a professional linguist.

MT into a foreign language should be determined by usage.


Who will read the translation? Your online friend who will chuckle at your bad French grammar but be pleased you tried? Customers at a farmers’ market who will enjoy seeing their language and forgive errors? Technicians studying directions for complex machinery? Potential clients reading your marketing materials, which were carefully constructed in English but are awkward and possibly error-ridden in another language?

We suggest that our clients do not publish anything that is the output of machine translation without having a professional linguist review the document. Sometimes light editing is enough. More often, the text needs to be rewritten, which then necessitates additional editing by a second person.


I like the analogy proposed by Tom Hoar, Managing Director at Precision Translation Tools Co. He compares machine translation to cameras. Decades ago, only a photographer with a professional camera could produce a picture. Today, smartphones make everyone a photographer. But professional photographers still use top-quality equipment to produce top-quality photos for weddings, magazine covers and sporting events. Photography, once only a profession, is now also a utility. The same can be said for translation.

Buyers today must understand when MT—that is, translation as a utility—is enough, and when professional translation is required. Tembua will always help clients make that decision. We want to deliver value for our clients because no one should pay for something that can be free!





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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