Online translation tools (OTTs) are mostly free, simple, and always out there to help you out. It easily could be your go-to if you need to translate a few lines of email to send your auntie in Italy or your grandma in China. We love free Internet things and we use them every day without a second thought about how actually trustworthy, safe and useful they are. But what exactly they can and cannot do, by the way?
It’s hard for a person who doesn’t speak the target language to assess the quality of an Internet tool translation. It’s okay when you use it to communicate with your friends or get a general understanding of the article on cacti growing you found on a Spanish website. But what if you are translating a business letter?
It’s just one of the many issues Internet translation tools like Google Translate, Bing Translator, DeepL, Linguee, or - god forbid! - Yandex Translate, have.
Keep on reading as we reveal a few key drawbacks these free online tools have. There is a chance you’ve never thought about all or at least some of them.
Web-based translation tools work with what they have - they convey the meaning with no regard to what grammatical differences there are. If the source and the target languages are not related - think English and Japanese - the readers of the online translation are in for a surprise. The best-case scenario is they don’t understand what you are trying to say, the worst - they will be taken in a completely different direction from the one you want them to go. Misunderstandings are to follow, time is wasted. Not exactly the result you hoped to get.
It’s most critical to not lose the key idea of the original text while translating it into another language. It’s especially true for business correspondence when there is so much at stake. And this is exactly the reason not to use free translation tools when you want to get rid of any potential discrepancies. To be on the safe side, hire a professional translator, or at least have your online tool translation checked by a native speaker.
Tone of voice
If you don’t know what ‘tone of voice’ means, you are already in trouble for two reasons - your text might be falling out of place and OTTs can’t tell if it’s an official document or a friendly note. So if your translated text asks a CEO ‘what’s up?’, or invites your foreign friend for ‘an official meeting’ at a local coffee place, you know who’s to blame. Online translators don’t feel the difference between writing styles, and it’ll be your problem if you trust them too much.
As we already know, OTTs don’t really care about shades of meaning, they take shortcuts by translating words directly. So persons’ names, product names, and place names may get distorted into very weird phrases. Web translation tools may even treat persons and geographical regions the same way by objectifying the former and humanizing the latter.
Another common issue with web-based translation tools is their tendency to magnify different styles. If the document is written by different authors, you will be left with a mish-mash of styles and moods. A human translator would clearly deal with it, duly smoothing over the rough edges, but an online translation tool couldn't care less about such context nuances.
There are so many ways to address your target audience and you know it. The thing is free language translation tools don’t. Unlike a human translator, they don’t have to think about a thing to cough up the first meaning they come up with. This may leave you with a word salad that makes you look bad with your readers. So if the intentions are a key part of the text you translate, machine translation tools could be of little help.
One of the most important things is to give your translation a native vibe so it would read and feel as if it were written in the target language. Localization doesn’t mean direct translation, and that’s where OTTs do not cut it. Alas, machines won’t trick the target audience, and this is where human translators will have an edge for a while as they usually know not only the language but also the cultural patterns.
Set expressions and idioms
If you are swamped with work and have no time to waste, then you travel quite different roads with the likes of Google Translate. Sure, it could give you a hand with translation and you will end up correcting all the weird stuff it made of your idioms (it translates texts word-for-word, remember?) If you don’t want to go to the uncharted territory of lost meanings and puzzling phrases, you have three options - 1 - don’t use idioms and set expressions; 2 - don’t use web-based translation tools; 3 - find a professional translator.
No sense of humor
Humor is a sign of creativity, and web translation tools are not good at it yet. A good joke is not just a witty remark, it’s all about timing, tone, and right wording. Monotonous AI tools haven’t gone far in this direction. If you translate a user guide or a scientific report setting hard facts and mere figures, it may not be a problem. But your blog article or a presentation would be much more entertaining if you include a few jokes just to keep your readers or prospects warm.
The OTTs’ inability to see a joke may also be an issue when you translate a foreign text into your native language. The direct translation you get will not let you appreciate the humor and often can be misleading.
Not thinking one step ahead
Okay, your copy wasn’t that difficult to translate and an online translation tool did its job. The text reads fine in both source and target language, and you’ve got a bunch of replies in a foreign language. Now what? How are you going to reply?
Considering the above-mentioned weaknesses, using Google Translate or DeepL to reply to your potential clients is a recipe for disaster. In your native language, you may sound eloquent and persuasive, but the translation you have might be off the target making your potential clients think you don’t take them seriously enough.
If you still want a quick-fix solution and plan to use a web-based translation tool to keep the conversation with your clients flowing, the least you can do is to apologize and warn them beforehand that you’d work with Google Translate. This won’t save your messages from being butchered by the simplistic ways it works, but your clients will not be taken aback by it.
Maybe you didn’t know it’s a thing, but online translation tools don’t really protect your privacy.
You could say it’s not a big deal since no hacker in the world would know when and what online service you use, so it’s too much trouble to hack you this way. Maybe so, but free translation services often store the data in the cloud and it may be freely available. It means if your documents have sensitive data - full names, contact information, etc - it must be removed before using free translation tools. But we often use them not to edit the documents but to get the quickest result possible so the private data edit seems to defeat the purpose.
You already know that a human translator wouldn’t expose your data online and it’s another reason against using free translation tools.
Today, when even big international corporations and national governments get hacked almost every day, we should take data privacy seriously.
So where do you get a translation that covers all the bases and doesn’t expose you to online threats?
Internet translation tools are very popular because they are free - or almost free - and available 24/7. But these huge advantages come with a hidden price - inferior quality, the lack of localization, and vulnerability to data leaks.
These issues are off the table if you work with a professional translation agency. And you would be surprised to know that translation rates are not as high as you think.
Whether you want to use an OTT as a band-aid solution or hire a translation professional is clearly up to you. But weigh your options carefully, setting your sight on long-term goals and keeping in mind that great quality, localized and proof-read, privacy protected translation is money and time well-spent.