All you need to know to get it right.
Online translation tools, such as Google Translate and Bing Translator, are quite controversial amongst language professionals. But it has to be said, it’s become almost unimaginable living without them in today’s globalised world. For those times when all you need is a quick translation of an email to get a rough grasp on what’s being said, or to instantly translate a web page so you can navigate a site, they’re the ideal tool…

Which of us today can say we’ve never used an online translation machine?

For everyday use, they can be very practical. Imagine you’re an expat who’s recently moved to a country where you have little knowledge or understanding of the language. With a couple of clicks you can translate administrative forms, utility letters, or even food labels in the supermarket.
So why, if they’re so useful, haven’t machine translation engines already led to the wholesale closure of professional Language Service Providers?

Popular DIY translation machines

What are we talking about when we say “DIY translation machines“?

These are the kind of tools that anyone can use to get an approximate translation of a certain text. There’s at least one that you’re guaranteed to have heard of…

1. Google Translate – this is probably the most famous machine translation tool. Support is now even included for a “visual translate” function, where you can point your phone camera at a target sign or label to get an approximate translation. There’s also an ever-improving simultaneous voice translation option.
2. iTranslate – is Apple’s competitor to Google Translate. The app has a great interface and phrase memory function, and also incorporates a speech recognition function.
3. iTranslate Voice 2 – this is the latest upgrade to iTranslate’s simultaneous voice translation function. It currently has over 40 languages programmed in.
4. WayGo – is a visual translation tool that’s specially designed for character-based languages such as Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. Google Translate’s visual option doesn’t currently support these languages.
5. SMS translator – if you use SMS, this handy little free app can help you text in a huge range of languages, and understand almost anything that you’re sent in return.

You can use these tools to write a letter or a text in a language you know little about, as long as you bear the following in mind:

  • Single words translated on their own may return an incorrect translation. It’s always best to include them in a sentence
  • The existence of homonyms (words with more than one different meaning) in the source or target language may result in the return of a mistranslation
  • There is no guarantee of the quality and accuracy of the returned translation

This makes them handy for casual messages to friends, but incredibly risky for professional documents or communications.

How to make machine translation more accurate

Here are some tips to optimise the accuracy of online machine translation:

1. Use simple sentences made of a subject, a verb, and a complement – free of relative, subordinate, and noun clauses. Break down long, complex sentences into multiple short, simple ones.
2. Back translate, and see if you get the result you expect.
3. If you speak more than one language, back translate into a different language and see whether the returned translation matches your expectations.

The dangers of DIY translation in business

With handy little apps like these making it relatively easy to speak with friends or complete a simple transaction, it can seem like DIY machine translation works. But when it comes to conducting international business, the stakes involved are a lot higher. And thus the dangers involved in a mistranslation rise.

Picture a legal document that doesn’t clearly state the outcomes of a business partnership… Imagine the problems you could have if your medical documents are translated incorrectly… What would happen if your latest marketing campaign accidentally mocked a respected figure or was inadvertently offensive?

But there are still big brands and even nations who skimp on translation costs, only to find themselves suffering in the long-term. Here are some great examples of bad translation which had far larger ramifications for companies and countries than they expected:

1) HSBC asks consumers to “Do Nothing”
International bank HSBC’s “Assume Nothing” slogan was mistranslated in various countries as “Do Nothing”. The cost of the rebranding required to repair the damage?
$10 million.
2) US dollar value falls because of mistranslation
When tourism writer Guan Xiangdong of the China News Service had to cover for colleagues in the finance-reporting department one day, little did she know that a terrible mistranslation of her highly speculative story – really little more than a round-up of other articles reported elsewhere – would be spread worldwide. The result?
Over $2 billion being traded incorrectly on the stock markets.
3) The Waitengi Treaty
Signed in 1840, poor translation work created international problems between Britain and New Zealand which still haven’t been resolved today!

The cheapest translation option?

Well, if machine translation can speed things up, and a human native speaker guarantees the quality… why not have a machine translate your source document, and a professional translator review it?
It’s the seemingly sure-fire solution hit upon by people across the world when they’re looking to save time and money in translation costs.

Rarely has the phrase “too good to be true” been more apt though. Resolving a bad translation is far more time consuming than simply translating from scratch, leading to a lot of time being wasted by the reviewer.

That said, some machine translation engines are now good enough for the process of machine translation plus human post-editing to be more efficient than human translation alone.


  • These tend to be engines developed by or for large-scale corporate users of translation, who invest large amounts of time and money in training these machines
  • Generally they are supported by extensive Translation Memories, databases of translations produced by professional, human translators and their corresponding segments in the original language
  • They are optimised for a narrow subject field
  • The MT engines available to consumers don’t produce results as good as the latest high-end professional machines

There are many things you can do if you want to save on translation costs though, and we’ve listed all of them in this article.

Does machine translation work?

If a translation agency offers to use machine translation in their work for you, should you be suspicious?
Not necessarily:

First of all, it’s good that they’re upfront about it. It would be a much bigger problem if someone offered you human translation and actually used a machine to complete it! Plus, a professional provider offering Machine Translation plus human post-editing might just give you the mix of price and quality you need for your project.
Finally, if you’re interested in finding out more about AI translators vs human translation, take a look at our article which analyses the results of a battle between the two. The results show just how far AI translation as a standalone process still has to go.

Asian Absolute uses translation memory technology

Combining the very best of what Translation Memory technology has to offer with professional translators who are qualified in your industry sector and native speakers of your target language gets you the best results
And that’s exactly the method that Asian Absolute uses.

If you’d like to get free advice or receive a free quote on your translation requirements get in touch.