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  • Writer's pictureCathy Castling

What’s the difference between a human translation and a machine translation?

Updated: Apr 24

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Machine translation vs. human translation: Which is better?

Machine translation has been a hot topic over the past few years. There's been lots of talk both inside and outside of the translation community about its potential and its drawbacks.

While it can be used to help speed things up, it should be used with caution as things can quickly go awry and you may end up with inappropriate, even offensive, misstranslations all over your website.


Machine translation FAQs

Here are a few quick answers to common questions about machine translation.

What is machine translation?

Machine translation is a process that uses software to automatically translate a text. It splits the texts into words and phrases and then finds equivalents for them in another language.

Software like Google Translate and DeepL are machine translation tools. They provide you with instant translations of words and phrases.

Is machine translation any good?

Like other AI tools, machine translation can be useful but isn't appropriate in all situations.

Machine translation is trained using pairs of sentences - one in the original (source) language and one in the foreign (target) language. The computer then creates a list of rules based on the source language that predict the most likely sequence of words in the target language.

It's ideal for translating the menu on holiday but reaches its limits when asked to translate your brand's tagline.

The machine lacks understanding; humans understand things that computers currently can't. Professional translators understand the source text on different levels: language, meaning, context, and nuance.

Is there a difference between human translation and machine translation?

Do I really need to invest in a professional translation for my e-commerce store? Surely Google Translate can do the job?

I've got an example from my own work that'll answer these questions.

The client

A Germany company that manufactures and sells environmentally-friendly and affordable leather bike accessories.

The task

Translating a headline for their new range of panniers.

The challenge

German original: königlich unterwegs durch die Stadt

Free online translation tool: royally on the road through the city

My solution: Rule the road

My thought process

I moved away from the original text in this particular example to create a natural-sounding translation that appeals to English-language readers.

I first removed durch die Stadt from the translation. The following product description was based around the idea of cycling through the city, so I felt that it didn't need repeating in the headline.

"Royally on the road" sounds awkward no matter how you say it. It doesn't roll off the tongue easily and it just doesn't really make any sense. Throw in the British Royal Family association with the term and you're not onto a winner.

This brand prides itself on selling affordable bags and accessories that everyone can buy. Not a really what you think of when you think about the Royal Family. This subconscious association could impact how British customers view and think of the brand. So that got the chop too.

"Rule the road" was the perfect solution.

  • It's reminiscent of the idiom: rule the roost, which means to be in complete control.

  • It's short (3 words), so it rolls off the tongue.

  • It uses the "r" alliteration. This creates a feeling of rolling, of movement, of being on the go. This imagery matches the product description that follows.

  • "Rule" isn't a direct translation of "königlich" (royal, regal, etc.). But it still nods at the feeling of the original text.

Moving away from the original German text allowed me to create a clear and concise translation. One that conveys the same idea and feeling as the original. You get a feeling of empowerment, of freedom, of joy.

So is a human translation better?

For me, yes. Machine translation can be a super helpful tool but it's limitations mean that - at the moment - it probably won't be replacing human translators and their creative translations.

But what do you think? Get in touch and let me know!


Image of a woman (Cathy Castling) sitting at a table with a coffee cup and magazine

Hi, I'm Cathy, language nerd, lake-swimmer, long-time rower 🚣

I’m here to help you communicate in English with authenticity and accuracy. Get in touch here.

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