Free machine translations - in what context is Google Translate ever acceptable ?

We've all been there: the latest quote from the translation agency is too high, the delays are too long, the budget is too small. Maybe just this once, I could use Google Translate... Couldn't I?

free machine translation

Free translations may help with...

Translating casual correspondance

So long as your contact is aware that you are using a machine to translate your intentions, then you'll probably get away with it.

Internal use only

I have worked with many clients, particularly during a tender process, who use automated translations to get the jist of a technical pack. Their team have to try and make sense of the weird English regurgitated by Google (not to mention the creative formating), but it's ok for documents such as technical briefs (which are typically repetitive and include numerous plans and drawings) or financial documents (since it's the numbers you're interested in). Since you will still need to line up a professionnal translator working in the target language to translate the tender bid and supporting documents, along with any RFI, it's a good idea to involve them early on so they can help with any nonsense. You simply couldn't expect the end client to consider spending their large budget with a firm who won't

Emergency translation

If you've read my article about urgent translations, you'll know that they are better avoided if possible. That said, if you receive an enquiry on a friday evening which seems time sensitive, or if your boss is stuck in a taxi in Hong Kong and can't quite communicate with the drive, then an internet translation may be the best you have.

Be sure to adapt your message to avoid mistranslations

If you must resort to a machine translation, make sure to keep the language and the message very simple. Use short, simple sentences and stay well away from idiomatic expressions and figures of speech. Most countries' equivalent of a "pot calling the kettle black" will be a completely different expression but since Google Translate will simply translate the reference to crockery, it's probably best to stay away from metaphores altogether...

Professional documents translated through an internet free service are embarassing

Simply imagine what your opinion might be of a brand who relies on automated translation from, say, Chinese to English? Would you trust a marketing campaigns which doesn't quite make sense? Would you sign a contract that you struggle to understand? Enough said. The same applies to your foreign audience, and there is little point in spending time and effort in making contact with them if you're going to put them off with mistranslations and concepts that don't exist in their country. To translate or rephrase these, you need a professionnal translator. If budget is a concern, read my tips on keeping translation affordable.

Try a free translation yourself

1. Type ‘free translation’ in Google and pick a free translation service - say Google Translate.
2. Copy a paragraph from a trusted website in French - or any language, for that matter. For example, you can use my French pages, a news snippet from Charlie Hebdo or France Football.
3. Either let the computer identify the language or help it out by selecting it, then translate into English to see what it's capable of.

These 'freebies' are no more than a poor attempt to convince internet users that machines can do the job. If you are conscious about the quality and accuracy of your message, and if you are serious about your foreign audience, save yourself the embarrassment and talk to a native translator!

Read my article on machine translation for more (sometimes very funny!) examples