Machine translation vs human translation: pros, cons and more

Machine translation is improving constantly, as is the quality of the translations produced with this technology. However, the ongoing debate of machine vs. human translation is still very real because machines have not yet replaced human translators. 

The truth is that you can translate your entire website or marketing brochure using tools such as Google Translate or DeepL Translate. Still, it is also certain that human translation has many advantages over machine translation, especially when it comes to quality. 

In this post, we will cover how human and machine translation works, the pros and cons and how to combine these technologies to leverage both options. Let’s dive in! 

Machine translation vs human translation

Machine translation: pros, cons and when to use it

Machine Translation (MT) is a technology that automatically translates your content without requiring any human input. You just need to upload a file containing the text or copy and paste the text into a box, and you get the translation. 

How does machine translation work? The latest machine translation technology, like Google Translate, uses Neural Machine Translation (NMT), a combination of artificial intelligence and neural network techniques. On the other hand, AI tools such as ChatGPT for translation generate human-like responses by using natural language processing algorithms developed by OpenAI. 

Regardless of the tool you choose to translate your content automatically, there are some general pros and cons. Let’s weigh them!

Machine translation pros

  • Speed: Machine translation can process large volumes of text in seconds, making it highly efficient for quick translations, mainly if there are time constraints. MT allows you to translate high-volume projects at speed. 
  • Lower cost: MT eliminates the need for human translators, reducing expenses to a minimum. If you are on a very low budget, MT may be your only option (arguably not the best). 
  • Large language selection: Some machine translation tools have over a hundred languages and almost countless possible language combinations. This means they can complete product rollouts and updates of content from a single place.
  • Accessibility: It enables instant translations for users, bridging language barriers in real-time when needed (most human translators take weekends off!). 

Machine translation cons

  • Accuracy: MT needs help to adapt idioms and cultural references. It also fails to translate creative or catchy sentences simply because there are rarely direct equivalents between languages. 
  • Specialised content: Machine translation does not have technical expertise, so if you are planning to translate a complex document such as a car manual or a legal document, terrible inaccuracies may take place. 
  • Consistency: While machine translation tends to use terminology consistently throughout a text, there are still inconsistencies, such as randomly using the terms “Pros” and “Advantages” and “Cons” and “Disadvantages” in the same text. Inconsistent terminology will confuse your readers!
  • Tone and style: Machines fail to capture the appropriate tone and style, particularly in creative or marketing content. While translators can follow your tone of voice, machine translation cannot consider all your preferences.
  • Privacy concerns: Sensitive information could be exposed online to third parties, raising data security issues.

When to use machine translation

  • Low-visibility content, such as internal documentation or a resource you plan to use as research for another piece of content.
  • User-generated content like reviews or comments for which consumers do not usually expect high-quality translations.
  • Content that is not very creative in nature, such as guidelines or directions.
  • Time-sensitive content with a short turnaround, such as hundreds of product descriptions that must go live before Christmas. 

Human translation: pros, cons and when to use it

Human translation works as expected: a qualified translator goes through the source text and translates it into the target language, usually aided with translation technology such as CAT tools to ensure consistency and increase performance. 

Suppose you want to translate your website or document into multiple languages or need a quick turnaround for a high-volume project. In that case, you can also work with a team of translators or a translation agency, who will take care of the project management and other aspects of translation. Let’s look at the pros and cons of human translation. 

Human translation pros

  • Accuracy: High-stake documents such as contracts, legal agreements, official documents, and academic papers demand precision only skilled human translators can provide.
  • Technical expertise: Software or Life Science content often requires human, specialised translators due to the complexity and domain-specific terminology. Translators often have formal training in their area of expertise in addition to their translation qualification. 
  • Cultural nuances and creative language: Translators interpret context, understand the meaning of a word or sentence and provide translation equivalents for cultural references, puns, metaphors, slogans, idioms, or humour that machine translation fails to do. 
  • Consistency and style: Professional translators can take into account your preferred terminology or tone of voice to describe your products or services more accurately than machine translation and reflect your brand effectively.  
  • Confidentiality and privacy: Translators usually work under an NDA and must have the necessary measures and mechanisms to protect sensitive information and prevent data breaches or unauthorised access.

Human translation cons

  • Higher cost: Human translation services generally start at around € 0.10 per word, but it can go much higher. So 50,000 words could cost you € 5,000 even if you work with an affordable freelancer translator. 
  • Longer turnaround time: Human translators are not as fast as MT. A professional translator can usually translate between 2,500 and 3,000 words per day. This is a drawback if you have an urgent translation requirement, although it is always possible for various translators to work simultaneously on the same project to speed up translation. 
  • Limited languages: Translators usually translate only into their native language, so unless you work with a language service provider able to support multiple languages, you will be limited to the languages any one translator can work with. 

When to use human translation

  • Accuracy is vital and more important than a quick turnover.
  • The audience of your content is your target customers, and you care about conversions and customer loyalty. 
  • You have a duty of care to provide accurate translations, or it is a legal requirement, such as in the case of legal documents or clinical trials. 
  • Your content is creative, and you want to have the same impact in a new language to engage with your audience. 

How to combine machine translation and human translation

You can combine human and machine translation services. The process is known as machine translation post-editing: A professional translator reviews the machine-translated content and makes manual corrections, such as amending grammar errors, spelling mistakes or incorrect terminology.

Using machine translation post-editing, you can improve the quality of a text translated using a machine translation engine to ensure that translations are accurate. 

Are you still wondering whether you should use human or machine translation for your text? Drop us a line and connect with our team of translation experts.