Translation Services, Machine vs Human – Which is Better?

Prestige Network Guest Articles

Translation is an essential tool for communication between international businesses, between multi-ethnic companies and their customers, and between organisations and countries. The most common way to get a translation done is through a translation agency or a freelance translator. However, over the past decade we have seen an emergence of a new type of translation: Free Machine Translation!

So what are the differences between human and machine translation? What type of projects can you use them for? How reliable are they?

First, let’s look at what translation means. The definition from Wiki states that “Translation is the communication of the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target-language text.” Translation is a complex process in which a translator must take into consideration many things. For example, the tone of the text, slang, cultural and contextual references, specific expressions and familiar language. If the translation is done well the reader may not realise that the document or article has been translated as there will be a natural flow.

Free machine translation on the other hand is a great way to save money and perhaps to give you a gist of the meaning which is some cases is all that is needed. However, if it is an important document and any misunderstandings could be disastrous and costly, then this type of translation should be avoided. One of the issues with free machine translation is that the translation may copy the same grammatical structure and make very literal word-for-word translations. Certain words, terms and expressions take on very different meanings when translated becoming misleading at best and completely confusing and simply wrong at worst. How do you think “It was raining cats and dogs.” or “You are so bad.” (said with a warm smile) translate literally into Arabic or Chinese?

The debate of machine translation continues as technology improves year on year with better quality and more accurate results. Some of the bullet pointed advantages are disadvantages are listed below.

Advantages of Machine Translation

  • Many free tools readily available such as Google Translate and various mobile apps.
  • Quick and easy to use
  • Can translate between many different languages using the same tool
  • Machine translation is constantly improving 

Disadvantages of Machine Translation

  • Level of accuracy can be very poor
  • Accuracy is inconsistent across different languages
  • Machines can’t translate context
  • Mistakes can be very costly, especially for businesses

The most important thing to consider with any kind of translation is the cost of potential mistakes and miscommunication. The translation of medical equipment manuals, legal contracts and other important documents require a very high level of accuracy. Mistakes can cost lives, cost businesses huge amounts of money and can seriously damage a business or personal reputation.

Advantages of Human Translation

  • It is a human translator’s job to ensure the highest level of accuracy
  • Human translator’s can interpret context and capture the same meaning, rather than simply translating the words
  • Human translator’s can interpret the use of creative language such as metaphors, slogans, etc.
  • Professional translators understand the idiomatic differences between languages and identify parts of text where literal translation is not appropriate.

Disadvantages of Human Translation

  • Turnaround time can be lengthy
  • Professional Translations rarely work for fee – costs can be high
  • Unless you work with a Translation Agency project management can be involved and costly as most translators work in only two languages – the source language and the target language which is usually their mother tongue.


Simply put, professional human translation is the best option when accuracy is even remotely important or when the complexity of the source text is high, eg., a legal document, making machine translation quite useless. And if you have multiple languages, a professional translation agency is recommended.

Free machine translation is suitable when you need to obtain the gist of a document or to convey a simple and informal message perhaps to a friend.

Translation Memory – The Final Piece of the Jigsaw

The final piece of this jigsaw is Translation Memory (TM) which is a type of more sophisticated machine translation and is used to quickly and accurately translate the same words, phrases and sentences that are then checked in context by a professional translator. This may be used to ensure consistent translations within a company or for legal terminology etc.

Here is a brief definition again from Wiki:

translation memory (TM) is a database that stores “segments”, which can be sentences, paragraphs or sentence-like units (headings, titles or elements in a list) that have previously been translated, in order to aid human translators.

Perhaps I will take a more in-depth look at TM later in another article.

Thank you for reading my short article which I hope you found helpful.

Joanne Boxley

Freelance Writer