How does machine translation work?

When you’re in a hurry it is tempting to use one of the online machine translation tools now freely available. We’ve all done it – and they are great when what you need is the gist of the text. But that’s all you get – a gist. You don’t necessarily get accuracy or context. And forget nuances and/or localisation. Savvy business people understand this.

How does machine translation (MT) work?

Machine translation should not be confused with computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools. With CAT tools the human translator uses technology to develop an extensive memory as translation is completed. At its most basic level MT merely substitutes words in one language for words in another. There is little or no human input.

Considerable research is underway to try and create a more natural-sounding translation by incorporating linguistic data, statistical techniques and reference material. Even with these additions you still need a person to edit the text before the translation is fit for publication.

Current machine translation software is customisable for use in a particular area or profession, particularly where formal or formulaic language is used, i.e. government and legal documents. Difficulties arise however when it is used for less standardised text or for conversation.

There are numerous approaches to machine translation. Here is some of the science if you are interested…

Rule-based MT: retrieves information from a multitude of source and target dictionaries, grammars and lexicons, before applying pre-defined ‘rules’ that allow the translation into a meaningful sentence to occur.

Direct approach: the text is run through an electronic dictionary, and the most ‘generic’ translation is found for each word, before re-ordering the sentence to match the grammar of the target language.

Statistical MT: based on observations that translation observes statistical regularities. The target language words are combined following a language model and using surrounding context.

Exampled-based MT: corpora, or similar texts are fed into the software. The tool matches source phrases to target language equivalents.

Hybrid MT: incorporates the best features from all of the above.

What text is suitable for machine translation?

If you need a ‘rough and ready’ general understanding of the content – it could be a section of a website, an email, a short advert, a report or article summary or synopsis – then machine translation is useful and cheaper than using a human translator. It will give you a basic understanding. It is not advanced enough to use for translating the material you use to promote your company, i.e. brochures or websites.

Why is it dangerous to use MT for selling your products and services?

It comes down to how much you value the text you’ve asked the ‘machine’ to translate. If it is marketing material about your company, material you’ve invested time and money in perfecting, material that’s going to promote your company 24/7, think again. Using machine translation on prime marketing material could seriously damage your brand and reputation with new prospects and potential customers.

As an experiment, Comtec fed a section of its own German brochure through an online tool. We were less than satisfied with the results.

Our German text
Wir haben intern die notwendigen Kenntnisse, um mit jedem Dateiformat Ihrer Wahl zu arbeiten. Dabei kann es sich um eine Artwork-Datei von InDesign oder Quark handeln, um Website-Inhalte in HTML oder um Ressourcen-Dateien für die Softwarelokalisierung.

The MT English version
We have inside the necessary knowledge to work with every file format of your choice. Besides, it can concern an Artwork file of InDesign or curd, around website contents in HTML or resource files for the software localization.

What a competent translator provided
We have the in-house expertise to work with any file format of your choice. This might be an artwork file in InDesign or Quark, website content in html or resource files for software localisation.

We hope the results speak as clearly to you as they do to us.

What tools are available online?

Useful free tools include

You’ve probably guessed by now that we’re incredibly enthusiastic about all things languages! So if you have a question about machine translation or would like to know more about our services, please get in touch on or call us on + 44 (0) 1926 335 681.

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