Can I trust a machine with my translation project?

If you start or end the day conversing with your smart speaker, dictating into your computer or using a language app, you’re already communicating with machines. The ability for a computer to understand what we're saying – in any language – is now built into more areas of life than you might first realise.

An algorithm determines what you see on the internet, based on the search terms you’ve inputted in the past. Voice recognition can control appliances in your home and even act as security for banking services. When it comes to professional translation, should you put your trust in emerging machine translation technology, or play it safe with human translators?

It’s no surprise that machines are moving in on the translation industry – and to great effect in some cases. After all, who hasn’t turned to Google Translate in a tricky overseas situation? But is it any good? Not everyone is convinced.

Attempts to auto-translate began in the 50s but the latest technology – Neural Machine Translation (NMT) – is a very different beast. It’s far more intuitive as it mimics the “deep learning” processes of the brain.

What are the fundamental differences between machine and human translation?

There’s no doubt that the power of NMT – and the fact it continues learning as more and more data is fed into the system – is absolutely adequate to tackle many translation tasks.

Yet these machines, intelligent as they are, still have their limitations. Whilst machine translation is developing at an incredible rate, it still struggles to deliver high-percentage accurate translation, and it’s not yet clever enough to pick up on all the nuances of language. Some machine translations are now good enough to produce excellent quality texts, but this can actually be dangerous – it makes it easier for mis-interpretations to be overlooked completely, which can often change the entire tone or sentiment of a message. This could be life-threatening for a medical translation, for example.

Machine translation is only as good as the data, known as corpora, that teaches it. For common languages there is a vast amount of bilingual corpora, but for low resource languages, the training data isn’t as comprehensive, and this can result in more questionable outcomes.

Robots looking after your houseplants? Why not – but leave translation to the (human) professionals. 

MT - it gets by with a little help

Machines aren’t yet good enough to be trusted to translate alone. Even with the latest machine translation advances around machine learning and neural networks, human intervention is still needed. In the translation industry we call this Machine Translation Post Editing, or MTPE. Human input is still required for quality results with this type of translation.

Human translators also have the cultural sensitivities which provide context for the text. Only experience can inform you of the multitude of ways in which messages are best conveyed in different languages, with local idioms or native understanding.

And that’s before we even consider face-to-face interpretation. Body language, gesture – all the non-verbal communication – are also vital to communicating well.

Interestingly, 2020 and 2021 have forced a reliance on machines as Covid restrictions have hampered in-person interpreting – Zoom has seen record sales. Yet even when the only machine involved is a video link, it is still a barrier to the sort of personal interaction which can be the key to enlightening interpretation. After all, translation and interpreting are both about so much more than just the words.

But will machine translation save me money?

Machine translation now has a very valid place in the translation industry. For certain types of text, NMT can add a lot of value, reducing your translation costs as well as the time it takes to get the translation market-ready. If you do decide to go down the machine translation route though, it’s essential your agency has a robust postediting process.

If your project has social or cultural sensitivities, or has creative language, we recommend the human touch. No computer in the world will be able to understand the particular circumstances of each and every situation, and machines lack the empathy and connection required to deliver a powerful message with sensitivity.

That’s not to say powerful technology won’t be used! We saved one client £15k on a human translation project using industry leading technology (see our charity translation case study).


So yes – NMT is developing at lightning speed, but machines aren’t replacing humans just yet. For now, professional translators will always need to provide their input somewhere in the translation process: whether that’s from the start, or in the post-edit.

It’s questionable whether robots will ever have the sophistication and emotion of a human brain – and until they do, nothing beats the accuracy and quality of professional human translators. If professional human translation is what you need, get in touch with the Sure Languages team! We work with highly experienced, qualified freelancers, who only ever translate into their native language.

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