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Know what you’re putting at risk: the dangers of machine translation

Know what you’re putting at risk: the dangers of machine translation

Business owners and managers under pressure to cut operating costs are often tempted to look at machine or code-guided translation as a substitute for professional translation services.

Sure, you might save a little bit of money initially, but before you take that step, it’s important that you have a clear understanding of what you’re putting on the line, not to mention the added expenses you could incur later.

What could possibly go wrong? To answer that question, I’ll take a time-honoured English expression and translate it into Russian with one of those online services:

“Вы получаете то, для что Вы платите.”

My Russian readers are no doubt aghast at this clumsy sentence.

But bear with me. I’ll translate it back into English, again using machine translation.

“You receive that, for what you pay.”

You still get a rough sense of what the original expression was meant to convey (“You get what you pay for,”) but as you can see, something gets lost along the way.

Not only has the punctuation been distorted, you’re now left with something that sounds awkward and, well, foreign.

Understand what you are putting at risk

To be fair, machine translation can be helpful in certain situations. For example, it can help you when you need to ask for driving directions when travelling to a foreign country, or if you’re pressed for time and are struggling to understand the meaning of an expression in a language that you’re unfamiliar with.

But are you really prepared to take your company’s carefully crafted message and your hard-earned reputation and entrust it to a language robot?

Do you want to take the risk that your readers in a second language are prepared to accept that you’re treating their need to understand your message as secondary…versus your desire to save a few dollars?

Word sense disambiguation

That’s just the start of the troubles that you will face with machine translation. You’re bound to have even bigger problems with what language experts call “word sense disambiguation,” in which translation without context mutilates the true meaning of a word or expression.

This is a common risk with English, because it is a language that is rich with metaphors and synecdoches. Many expressions suffer greatly with machine translation. For instance, a sentence that includes “a piece of cake” might refer to an actual cake, or it might refer to a figure of speech designed to express simplicity. Machine translation can’t tell these apart, but a professionally trained translator can. They’ll even go the extra step of finding an expression that is culturally appropriate while protecting the meaning of a phrase in its language of origin.

An even greater risk than of just looking awkward

Let me share with you another example—one that illustrates how a poor translated expression can lead to embarrassing results.

When the Protein Research Institute within the Russian Academy of Sciences sought out to translate the name of their organization from Russian into English, something really went wrong.

What was once “Institut Belka” became “The Squirrel Institute.”

All it took was simple mixup between the words “belka” (белка) and “belok” (белок) and the word protein became squirrel. In their defence, the Russian government recently pledged that more of its officials will be required to speak a second language as part of their professional duties. A valuable lesson was learned.

Mistakes do happen. And machines, for all their time-saving benefits, can’t be counted on to handle the ambiguities that exist in every language.

That is why professional language translation services offer a return on investment that can reap benefits many times over. Not only do you gain the peace of mind knowing that your message is going to be well understood in other languages, your customers will notice the difference, too.

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