Human Translation vs. Machine Translation: The pros and cons for legal translations


Many people confuse Machine Translation (MT) with free translation tools such as Google Translate. This causes particular concern amongst firms requiring legal translation, as online translation tools offer no data security protection, confidentiality or quality assurance.

Machine translation is very different to those free tools. It’s secure and complies with data security and confidentiality requirements; and it can enable a faster turnaround of legal translations and also reduce costs.

However, there are many situations where it isn’t appropriate. For example:

  • Translating testimonies or claim forms where figures of speech or emotive language require a human translator to ensure an accurate translation
  • Translating documents such as birth, marriage or death certificates that need to be officially certified for court or VISA purposes
  • Translating documentation such as terms and conditions or contracts where there is absolutely no room for error, and a mistranslation could result in a very different outcome in a legal case.

Yet machine translation does have a place in legal translation, as one component of a human translator’s toolkit.

A good example of this is when you need to translate large volumes of case documents for legal proceedings, or for multilingual e-discovery. In these situations machine translation can help human translators manage large quantities of material, and identify text that needs post-editing or full translation by a legal translator.

MT should never be used for legal translation without being managed by a specialist legal translator. The human translator’s role is to first identify source text that is appropriate for machine translation, for example text that is not critical to a case, and then review the translated text. To do this they need to have a specialist background in legal translation.

Having identified appropriate text for machine translation the human translator will oversee this aspect of the translation, review it for accuracy and flag any text for post-editing or full human translation.

The correct approach is to use machine translation for large volumes that are required in a short time frame; where the translated text will not be widely read. The result is a translated text that provides an accurate and reliable understanding of the source text, but would not have the finesse and readability of text translated by a human translator.

Here at Comtec our legal translation services team can advise you on whether machine translation may be appropriate. However, in 90% of cases we believe it’s better to just have a professional legal translator do it for you.

Download our guide to legal translation here.

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