Beyond Words - Language Blog

Free Translation: A Good Place to Start

If you want something translated, you may be tempted to do it on “the free.” Why not? Today’s technology makes word translation easy — sometimes.

For years, Babblefish was the go-to translation site, and recently Google has introduced their free translation application, complete with widgets for translating entire web pages.

Machine translation works well for those quick-and-dirty word translations, but it is certainly not an infallible way to communicate in a foreign language — especially for professionals. Most of the time, free translation machines don’t account for proper grammar, slang, or even the correct meaning.

Here is an example of something I attempted to have translated from English to Spanish by a free translation service. This is text from an article on our website entitled: Improper Korean Translation Causes National Embarrassment:

English text:
“After an unfounded mad cow disease scare in Korea, U.S. FDA cattle feed rules were translated to Korean and published, but it soon became apparent that the translation left out details from the English source text. As a result, the translated document communicated a much more stringent U.S. feed policy than actually exists.”

Here is the Spanish translation:
“Despues de una infundada enfermedad de las vacas locas asustar a Corea, EE.UU. la FDA la alimentacion del ganado normas se han traducido al coreano y se publicara, pero pronto se hizo evidente que la traduccion al margen de los detalles del texto de origen Ingles. Como resultado de ello, el documento traducido un comunicado mucho mas estrictas EE.UU. pienso que la politica realmente existente.”

You don’t need to understand Spanish to see the errors. Just copy the translated text back into English:

“After an unfounded mad cow disease scare Korea, U.S. FDA animal feed standards have been translated into Korean and published, but it soon became clear that the translation in the margins of the details of the original English text. As a result, the document translated a communique much stricter U.S. I think that the policy actually exists.”

You won’t find this kind of prose published by any reputable source, and you don’t want these kinds of errors representing you or your organization in a professional context. The problems with the free translation are evident. To begin with, in English, there is a big difference between the words “standards” and “rules.” Also, notice how the article is now written in the first person, and with a broken English tone. And how in the world did we end up with a French word? Ah yes, isn’t technology great?

But let’s not knock the free translation services. They can, after all, be a real time saver. In fact, if you have a simple email, or a small bit of text that you need to just get the gist of, the free translation machines are often the best place to start. But that’s just not going to cut it when you require a true professional translation. The real talent comes with a professional human expert who has a deep understanding of the languages and cultures they translate.

To learn more on the subject of professional translation, and the arguments for and against machine translation, check out the following articles:

Language Translation: Man vs. Machine
Google Translation: Man vs. Machine II
How to Choose A Translation Company
How Translation Services Work