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Machine translation quality disparities

Machine translation (MT) is often less expensive and has a faster turnaround than hiring a human translator. But before your organization prioritizes cost over quality, make sure you’re informed about the multiple and concerning problems you may encounter with MT.

Gender bias

bias: prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair

If you’re translating a document from a language that’s gender-neutral into a gender-specific language, you may inadvertently end up with a biased translation. MT technology relies on context clues and statistics to select the correct replacement word.

For example, MT substitutes gender-neutral terms such as doctor or director with male vocabulary, while caregiver or cleaner end up female. Many companies strive to implement more inclusive, impartial, and equitable practices, yet simple MT bias can do the exact opposite.

Pronoun confusion

MT struggles with pronouns such as you or they. For example, Spanish has many versions of you, including(singular/informal), usted (singular/formal), vos (singular/formal and informal), and ustedes (plural/formal and informal). And some languages, like Japanese, tend to avoid using pronouns. So how does the machine select the correct usage? Without a human editor to review your translated document, you could end up with inaccurate, inconsistent text that’s hard for the reader to understand.

Words with multiple meanings

In many languages, a single word has multiple meanings. In English, mouse can mean a rodent or a computer accessory, while second could refer to a measurement of time or placement within a sequence. As technology advances, context allows for a better translation. But would you want to risk a client or customer finding simple and possibly confusing mistakes like this in your collateral?

Literal translation of nuanced phrases

We often use metaphors and other creative language to communicate. While a human translator knows the idiom “it’s raining cats and dogs” means heavy rainfall, a machine won’t know the phrase has an alternate meaning unless programmed to do so. If you’re translating clever catchphrases, sensitive content, creative descriptions, or symbolic language, you’ll need a human editor to ensure the correct meaning comes across.

Did you know?

By default, MT chooses the most common vocabulary words when converting text. As a result, terms selected by automated translators can deviate from the original meaning.

Lack of cultural understanding

Each language has distinct cultural norms, and violating them could send the wrong message to the reader. Your translation needs to respect the culture of the recipients to make a positive impact; MT isn’t yet advanced enough to ensure cultural sensitivity. However, human translators understand cultural values and unspoken rules to create a final product that communicates effectively with your target audience.

Inadequate accommodation of literacy levels

Unlike human editors, MT technology cannot adapt text complexity based on the intended reader. When you have a specific audience in mind, your content’s complexity should match their educational and literacy levels. You wouldn’t want to insult highly educated scholars with oversimplified text, and you’d probably avoid using complex language for readers with lower comprehension skills.

Questionable data security

Using public MT portals can lead to unintentional data leaks and privacy risks. Terms of use agreements may entitle the MT provider to store, modify, reproduce, and distribute your submitted content.

Example: At the Connect 2019 conference, a speaker described the use of public MT at his company. When IT management began monitoring employees’ MT usage, they found that users put as much as 5 GB of enterprise content into public MT portals daily. Further analysis revealed that the material submitted for translation included:

  • Future product plans
  • Customer communications
  • Sensitive HR issues
  • Other confidential business process content

Benefits of CyraCom translation

Partnering with CyraCom for your translations helps you access these advantages:

  • Human translators and editors with subject matter expertise in 100+ industries
  • 300 languages offered with literacy level adherence
  • Multiple projects can be completed simultaneously within our secure Translation Portal
  • Long-term savings and terminology consistency with our Translation Memory Database

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Lindsay Lawson

Lindsay Lawson

An experienced researcher, writer, and editor on language services-related topics, specializing in interpreting and translation services, how language works.