Do not explode your nose – why machine translation might not be right for you

Companies that wish to trade overseas will often find themselves needing to have documents and marketing materials translated and some might be tempted to use Machine Translation apps like Google Translate but although there are upsides, there are risks too.

A new study has shown that Google Translate is becoming more reliable and for a quick translation of relatively unimportant text, many people will accept a Machine Translation (MT) but whilst this may seem “accurate enough” for everyday use there are certain situations where it just won’t do.

The question for executives and business managers has to be “how accurate is accurate enough?”.

Machine translation isn’t all bad
I want to start by saying that machine translation is not universally a bad thing.

After all, it seems a little like overkill to use a professional translator to help you understand how to set an alarm clock or program your TV when the instructions are not in your own language.

MT is also helpful when you want to greet someone in their own language as a method of paying respect or of breaking the ice.

There are many other ways that MT can help in non-business critical situations and my position is that anything that gets people into languages has to be a good thing.
Quick and easy communication aids business and as long as you don’t inadvertently insult your biggest customer then MT can definitely help.

For professional translation companies like Teneo, it may seem that MT systems are taking customers away but I don’t see it that way. In fact, many of our new customers come to us precisely because they have used MT and found it to be clunky or because they do not feel they can trust the results.

Is MT any good?

The trust issue is an important area that should concern business owners and a new study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine shows that they are right to be wary.

The study, carried out by Breena R. Taira, Vanessa Kreger, Aristides Orue, and Lisa C. Diamond looked at the accuracy of Google Translate when converting medical instructions into a variety of languages.

It is a helpful exercise because it takes a dispassionate view of the accuracy of MT when used in a critical situation and the results certainly give us all food for thought.

The crux of the issue is whether apps like Google Translate are able to give people the confidence they need to put mission-critical translations into the hands of a machine.

By looking at discharge instruction for 400 patients, translated from English into a variety of languages the researchers were able to test whether the general intent of the statement was retained.

The results were mixed but with Spanish, 94% of patients reported that the intent was retained. The lowest result was Armenian with only a 55% accuracy rate.

“Overall, [Google Translate] accurately conveyed the meaning of 330/400 (82.5%) instructions examined but the accuracy varied by language from 55 to 94%,” the authors state.

When is “accurate enough” not accurate enough?

If we take an optimistic slant and accept that 94% of translations into Spanish MT worked well enough that the patients could understand the instructions then that sounds like a pretty good hit rate but it ignores an important point.

Good enough to understand is not necessarily good enough to distribute.

What I mean by this is that whilst a patient may be pretty accepting of grammatical mistakes or phraseology that may seem a little ‘odd’, in contrast, legal, technical or medical users may not be so accepting and it could end up causing untold problems.

And whilst you may be able to make yourself understood by using MT in an informal spoken setting, distributing marketing material that ends up sounding unprofessional is not the impression you want to give.

For example, the study highlights some areas where the instructions were grossly mistranslated.

The instruction “Do not blow your nose or put pressure on your facial fracture.” was translated into Farsi as “Do not explode your nose because it could put pressure on the break in your face.”

And “You can take over the counter ibuprofen as needed for pain.” in Armenian became “You may take anti-tank missile as much as you need for pain.”

Remember that these are medical instructions, and whilst they are amusing for us, imagine if the translation was inaccurate to the extent that the patient was harmed?

The study points out that Google Translate has improved over the last few years but I would argue that if you are putting a marketing message on a billboard you need to know for certain that it is right.

This means correctly translated but also properly localis(z)ed content so that the meaning and intent are conveyed.

What can we do about it?
From my point of view, any company that is looking to trade overseas needs to assess the risks of mistranslation.

It is true that in many cases, English has become a universal language and in certain sectors like aerospace and maritime it is expected. But in other instances, using English instead of the local language could well be seen as insulting and so an accurate translation and localisation is required.

When using MT I would always advocate having a trained and experienced linguist in place to help put things right for the final audience. However, where a translation is vitally important and there can be no room for error – think medical, engineering, law, localisation (marketing copy) then it is best to have a translator in charge from the start.

It’s also important to make sure that your translator is experienced and trustworthy otherwise you could fall prey to scam artists so make sure that you always check the credentials and track record of your translation provider.

In summary: Machine translation – the good, the bad and the ugly
From my point of view, machine translation apps have a lot going for them.

They are quick, very simple to use and in the case of Google Translate, totally free.

Google is a good way to check the pronunciation of words and to practice your greetings or small talk in a different language and for small, less important tasks it is absolutely fine – most of the time.

But if you need mission-critical translations then there’s no substitute for the quality and local knowledge that an experienced, professional translator can bring.

Technical, medical, engineering and legal documents are all examples of sectors where you need to make sure your translation service is good enough otherwise things could really get ugly!

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