Free online translations: the limits of their accuracy levels

Idea TranslationsBest PracticesFree online translations: the limits of their accuracy levels

Leading technology companies have been investing in machine translations for years. Advances in this area are undeniable, as is the case with new technologies in general, which have been driving digital transformation throughout all industries. And while most advanced translation services, supported by machine learning and artificial intelligence, are paid, there is a large quantity of others that are not.

Many organizations are tempted to use these services. However, professional translation offers skills and results that no machine can match. What problems can arise with free online translations?

Everyday vs. specific use

In an increasingly more interconnected and multilingual world, on a daily basis, people turn to free translation sites or other applications to use when travelling in a country where they don’t understand the language, communicate with co-workers, translate educational material or learn a new language.

More than 500 million people use Google Translate, the multilingual neural machine translation service developed by Google in 2006, on a daily basis. Source: EarthWeb

And while translation technology that is used free of charge at the consumer level can easily meet these everyday needs and curiosity with no issues, it is the experience that comes with professional experts that makes the difference when it comes to translations for organizations, companies and specific targets.

There are tasks and areas where content is critical and with different degrees of complexity, in the legal, technical, scientific, health, diplomatic and business world to name a few. In any one of these cases, resorting to free online translations can turn into irreparable losses.

Research conducted in multicultural areas of San Francisco, where doctors relied on a free translator to provide their patients with instructions, was very revealing in this regard. After analyzing 100 emergency discharge instructions translated in Google Translate, experts from the University of California concluded that they were 92% accurate for Spanish and 81% accurate for Chinese.

This would appear to be a relatively high rate of accuracy, but those small margins of 8% and 19% respectively means that about 1 in 10 Spanish and 2 in 10 Chinese terms were translated incorrectly. In documents with a high impact on users, such as a patient informed consent, there is simply no margin for error. A mistake could potentially throw away millions of dollars’ worth of research or worse, put lives at risk.

Google Translate offers the ability to communicate in 108 different languages, while Bing Translator, about 70. However, there are more than 7000 languages spoken worldwide and at least 4000 with a writing system. Source: BBC

The limitations of free translations

Cultural understanding: understanding in depth the culture, context of use, nuances, emotions and “hidden” meanings in messages is a skill that only a specialized and experienced person can have.
Monolingual information: many of the millions of data pieces found online tend to be monolingual. What does this mean? That articles, blogs or videos published in one of the hundreds of languages that exist in Africa, for example, are only in those languages.
Technical expertise: the relevant technical aspects of certain products and services, especially in industries such as manufacturing and logistics, as well as legal and scientific areas, require a deeper understanding.

And while many organizations focus on the time and money saved by using online translations to meet their language needs, they do not consider the negative “boomerang effect” that can result from errors in such free services. Offending potential customers is a result that will undoubtedly be more costly than investing in professional translations.

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