Translation Software
Why It's Just Not Ready For Prime Time

One language into another. What could be simpler?
Just compute...compute...what's that smell?

Translation Software: The Promise
The Holy Grail of localization is translation software. Does it work? Sort of. Sometimes. But it's almost never perfect. In fact, we'll just translate this first paragraph into Spanish and back into English below.

English Original
Two Spanish Translations
(using software)
Spanish back into English
(using software)
The Holy Grail of localization is translation software. Does it work? Sort of. Sometimes. But it's almost never perfect. In fact, we'll just translate this first paragraph into Spanish and back into English below. El santo grial de la localización es software de la traducción. ¿Trabaja? Clase de. A veces. Pero it' s casi nunca perfecto. De hecho, we' el ll apenas traduce este primer párrafo a español y nuevamente dentro de inglés abajo.
(using Babelfish, Oct 10, 2008).
El Santo Grial de localización es software de traducción. ¿Trabaja? Algo. A veces. Pero es casi nunca perfecto. De hecho, nosotros acabamos de traducir este primer párrafo en español y atrás al inglés abajo
(using Freetranslation, Oct 10, 2008).

Grial santo of the location is software of the translation. He works? Class of. Sometimes. But it' s almost never perfect. In fact, we' ll as soon as it translates this first paragraph to within again English Spanish and down giving an idea him of how it is filled to error-him is
(using Babelfish, Oct 10, 2008).

The Holy Grail of locating is software of translation. Works? Something. At times. But is almost never perfect. In fact, we have just translated this first paragraph in Spanish and behind to the down the English
(using Freetranslation, Oct 10, 2008).

Some of the errors are just odd, like a space after the apostrophes in the first example. The first example also couldn't figure out what to do with "The Holy Grail," so left it in Spanish. The second example starts off OK, but by the second sentence, is struggling and literally crashes at the end with "and behind to the down the English."

We purposely chose two of the most popular software translation programs using two common languages. And, the translations were done in 2008. Admittedly, they were "free," but are they professional enough for a business? NOW Translations doesn't think so.

Still not convinced? Read on.

What is Software Translations?
The idea of Software Translations (ST) is to feed a source (original) language document into a computer and have the resident translation software produce a document for a target language. The ST software uses a combination of databases and glossaries to create a source document which, in theory, is understandable to a native speaker of that language.

Some programs claim up to 90% accuracy. What does that mean? Literally every tenth word or phrase will have something wrong with it. This isn't such a problem if you know what mistakes the software has made and know how to fix them, but companies rely on this software for finished documents, getting no editing or proofing by a native speaker. That would be a bad idea even if the "90% accuracy" claim is true. NOW Translations has found that it isn't true at all.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?
Let's look at an example where the ST is absolutely correct, yet utterly wrong. "Out of Sight, Out of Mind"; one program interpreted this as, "Invisible, Insane." Logically, the phrase could mean that, but in the real world of the English language, it doesn't.

Imagine submitting a business proposal and it was, at best, only 90% accurate; what about packaging, recipes, auditing statements, even love letters? Some of these errors aren't just typos. Some of these errors can be insulting, misleading, and ridiculous. Insulting, misleading, and ridiculous aren't the usual goals for business or romance and probably won't make a good batch of cookies.

One of the most baffling errors NOW Translations has seen is when the ST turns something that's supposed to be a positive statement into a negative and vice versa.

Would ST help me if I had some grasp of the language, maybe some college courses?
Using ST might work for you if:


You were an excellent student, both in terms of writing, reading, and speaking.


You are up-to-date on your language skills (not: "I had some French in High School back in the 90s").


The document you need translated isn't crucial (a note or short letter to a friend, for example).

4 There's no page layout, web design, or multimedia concerns you need to worry about.

If you can't confidently answer all the above, ST will only get you into trouble.

If I hired a professional agency to edit and proof the ST, would ST work then?
Perhaps. You’ll need to be up-front with the agency you hire, because they’ll want to know the material wasn’t translated by a professional before you show it to them (nobody likes surprises). Depending on the complexity of the original document and the facility of the ST software, you’ll encounter one of the following from the agency’s review:


The target document is stilted and literal; there are mistakes, but it can be edited to improve the readability and accuracy.


The target document is stilted and literal and much of the terminology or vernacular are wrong; an edit would improve the document, but don't expect it to read like it was done by a native speaker.


The target language is so poor that it would cost you more to edit it into something serviceable than to translate it from scratch - it still wouldn't sound as good as an original translation.

So How Accurate is ST
In our experiments, NOW Translations has yet to run into anything approaching 90% accuracy. In fact, we've found whole sentences, paragraphs, and pages which are the opposite of that claim. Even a children’s text like "See Spot Run" yields meanings akin to: "Visualize stains that leak."

Software Translation is now common, even on web browsers. We’ve had fun (and so can you) translating foreign phrases into English and back again.

We took our NOW Translations philosophy, "Only the best: Expertly translating and localizing your company’s products and services into all the languages of the world!" and, using the ST supplied by one of the major web search engines, translated the text into German. The outcome was this: "Only das beste: Sachverständig, übersetzend und Beschränken der rodukte und der Dienstleistungen Ihrer Firma in alle Sprachen der Welt!"

How accurate was the German? Here it is translated back into English: "Only the best: Expertly, translating and limiting of the products and of the services your company in all languages of the world."

The translation starts out OK, but upon hitting the word "Expertly" the ST added a comma, perhaps thinking this was meant to be the first in a series of modifiers for "your company’s products" though there is no grammatical reason it should have made this error. The word "limiting" is also not what we’d want to have a client think we do for their products and services; finishing up, "of the products and of the services your company in all languages of the world" leads the reader nowhere, the entire sentence being a fragment and incomplete. In other words, one sentence translated, one sentence wrong.

Let’s not stop there. Here’s the text for a software upgrade we were sent in the mail; the original is on the left.

English Original

Spanish Software Translation, that was then translated back into English

Confirm your name and address as printed below. Note any corrections. Confirm the last registered version in use as printed below. Your upgrade price is noted. If you have purchased a more recent version than the one shown, see "Upgrade Reservation Pricing" on the reverse of this form. Complete the reverse of this form, insert in the postage-paid reply envelope, seal, and mail.

Confir to me its well-known and direction according to the form down. It observes any correction. Confir to me the version registered happened working according to the form down. Its price of the improvement is observed. If you have bought one more a version more recent than the one than she is demonstrated, she sees "the appraisal of the reservation of the improvement" in the reverse of this form. The reverse of this form, the movable part finishes in on postage-paid of the answer, the seal, and the mail (done using Babelfish, Oct 10, 2008).

It can’t even get the first word right (what is a "confir"?). And it’s downhill from there. But if you think we’re being unfair, that we should go real easy on the software, let’s use the words of the "Great Communicator" himself, Ronald Reagan. Reagan was known for using simple language to make a clear point:

"It matters little that you hold the title to your property or business if government can dictate policy and procedure and holds life and death power over your business. The machinery of this power already exists."






It imports little that you arrest the heading its property or business if the government will be able to dictate to the politics and the procedure and to arrest the power of the life and the death on its business. The machinery of this power exists already.

It constitutes few that you stop the name to your characteristic or to business, if government can prescribe politics and procedure and living and death energy over your business continue. The machinery of this energy existierent already.

It imports small that you hold the title to your property or commerce if the government can dictate to politics and the died procedure and has the power of and of life over your commerce. The machinery of this pontenza already exists.

It is essential little that you held the title on your property or businesses if the government can dictate the policy and the process and holds the power of the life and dead above your business. The machines of this power already exist.

It concerns little that you carry out the title to your characteristic or business if the government can dictate to the policy and the procedure and carries out power of the life and the concluído death his business. The machinery of this power exists already.

Well, the common man may have understood Reagan, but the common ST did not. Something so simple still got lost in the translations. Note where the various language databases don’t even cover all words, which is why some remain in their native languages. The strangest thing about the examples above, however, is the next to last word in the German "existierent." This is probably supposed to be a German word, but certainly one we’ve never heard of. So, not only are the databases incomplete, they’re inaccurate - they make words up.

The problem with ST is that it does not question. It does not struggle. It does not search for meaning. It simply throws out the best it can whip up as fast as it can whip it. It isn’t even able to look at your face and realize it just fed you several spoonfuls of nonsense. Language is alive. Software Translation is not.

One last test before we go, keeping it as simple as we can: "It takes one to know one."






It makes one examination to know one.

It takes in, in order to know in.

It takes one in order to know one.

It takes to know one.

Taking one to know one.

Success! Well, the Italian makes sense anyway. So, from all the examples we’ve seen, at last we come to something like 20% accuracy.

Is there software that can help my company with translations?
Yes, it's a Machine Translation Database (MTD). The MTD software is used to compile a database of professionally translated materials. This is not magic; it does require a language professional to develop and maintain it. But once a company has a reliable MTD, it can use previously translated phrases, paragraphs, and pages automatically throughout future documents. This means those items don't need to be translated, edited, and proofed again from scratch, saving time and money.

Naturally, MTD is not something you use if your company only translates small items like brochures, ads, small manuals, etc. The time it takes to set-up and maintain would yield no benefits. However, if your firm frequently needs massive projects translated, where text changes come in a consistent, expected way, then MTD is a good tool. You must be committed to work closely with your translation agency to make MTD a benefit for you.

Again, MTD will not save you time or money on ads, small manuals, etc. The large, specialized jobs where MTD can help require excellent, thorough project management (the glossaries and other resources built for these jobs are specialized and time consuming to set-up and maintain). The real savings for such jobs are in time, because the document modifications can be plugged into the MTD by the operator and edited as required, which, thanks to the MTD and the nature of the rigid text, can be minimal.

Accurate, lucid translations are done by language pros. Accept no substitutes.

Thanks for the tips!

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