Is machine translation making a comeback?

Now, before I get shot down by a flurry of irate translators, hear me out.

There’s been an increase recently in the use of post-edited machine translation for some projects where the volume of content is so huge, and the time window so short that human translation, and then proofreading and subsequent editing of the text, would just not be practical. We at Web-Translations are observing this trend with great interest.

Every week I read an article or comment telling me that that the quality of machine translated text is improving all the time, and having used a couple of the most well-known online tools recently for research and information purposes, I’d have to agree.

However…and this is a very big BUT…the raw product of these tools is never going to be a substitute for professional human translation. There’s just no sensible comparison.

If we’re really in such a hurry to get content translated and published online, using machine translated content and then having it edited afterwards to produce a text of reasonable quality does offer a solution where the client involved is not willing to compromise either a) on cost or b) on speed, or even both of these.

To summarise the benefits of post-edited machine translation:

  • Faster turnaround time
  • Reduction in cost
  • Huge volume of text can be handled


The cons are (fairly obviously):

  • Inadequate quality
  • Mistranslation – which can lead to misunderstanding and confusion
  • Only suitable for certain uses (more about this below)

The logical next question is, will professional translators accept this development and be willing to edit machine-translated output ready for publication online?

We are regularly contacted by newly graduated linguists and post-graduates who have just completed translation qualifications, eager to gain experience in a sector where most reputable companies require 3-5 years of commercial experience before considering freelance applicants, a tough environment indeed. Would this offer an opportunity for them to cut their teeth and put their skills to practical use? Or is it insulting to trained linguists to ask them to do this, even if they might lack experience?

Another problem rears its head too – how would a layperson know what they were buying? An unscrupulous company could say that they provide professional translation, and actually be making a larger profit by using machine translation and then post-editing (it is rumoured that some companies already do this). There is enough confusion for clients not familiar with buying translation services on what a fair price is and what they should expect from a translation provider, without this added complication.

Where might this type of service be successfully used? It isn’t suitable for translating manuals or instructions, and would not have the desired effect if used for sales or marketing copy, but there are some situations where it could be applied. Here are some of my suggestions – let me know if you agree, or can suggest any more:

News articles

Blog posts


Personal emails

Text messages

Automated messages – e.g. confirming an online order, or acknowledging receipt of a help/support request (these are often translated only once, then automatically sent to the recipient via a database).

Most instances where text will be published would not be suitable scenarios for post-edited machine translation, as there is too much exposure to risk. Imagine if a manual for a chainsaw were translated by machine – even if the text were post-edited by a professional translator, this is something that a manufacturer would not consider, as the potential for being sued would be far too great.

Hopefully this development does not pose a serious threat to translators – if properly used, it could reduce the pressure on all of us for those rush jobs that always crop up, and could lead the way to a more efficient process for certain projects in future.

OK – time for me to don my crash helmet and wait for the backlash of comments…