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The perils of a free translation … and an insight into Machine Translations

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The perils of a free translation … and an insight into Machine Translations

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In the first part of this series about free translations, we discussed why it can be a bad business decision to ask your international distributors to look after your translations. In this part, we’ll focus on reasons why you should avoid using Google Translate to translate business documents.

Part 2: Why Google Translate can be a bad idea for your business

With most businesses aiming to reach a wider audience with their digital content or trying to expand their overseas client base, translation has become an essential commodity. However, a lot of people wonder why they should waste their time, energy– and most importantly money – finding good translators when they can do it for free with Google Translate.

While it may sound like a good idea to use a machine translation service that is readily available and will cost you nothing, there is a major downside to it.

First, let’s consider how Google Translate actually works.

Google Translate, like other statistical machine translation (MT) services, uses a translation algorithm, which is based on matching language patterns. This involves analysing millions of printed and online documents that have already been translated by human translators. While scanning these documents, the computer programs look for patterns between the translated and original text.

Once patterns have been identified, these are used as a reference to translate similar text in the same way in future. For instance, ‘hello’ in English is most likely to be ‘Hallo’ in German based on existing patterns between the two languages.

For some of the languages that don’t have much translated text available, the database is smaller and there are therefore fewer patterns to refer to. This is why the accuracy of the translation will vary for each language, based on the size of the database.

So can we use it for our business?

As statistical MT services are based on probability, they can be used with smaller texts to convey or understand a simple message. For example, if you have an information request from a customer in their native language, you can use machine translation to quickly get the gist of what they are asking for.

However, there are some good reasons for avoiding MT services when translating more important documents:


For technical, marketing or legal documents, you need to ensure that the translated text is free of any ambiguities or inaccuracies. According to the British Medical Journal (BMJ)[1], the accuracy of Google Translate for translating medical text is less than 58%. The paper also highlights that some of these errors could be life-threatening. You really can’t afford to take that risk, whatever business you’re in!


Accuracy is not the only disadvantage of using an MT service for your business. Even with the most accurate translation, you have to be careful about how effectively it conveys your intended meaning. For instance, particularly with promotional materials, the translation should take into account the entire text and not just individual words. This is quite difficult to achieve through MT, whereas you can ask a human translator to pay more attention to style and meaning and provide them with a brief.

Unusual language combinations

If you require a translation in a language combination that doesn’t have a large corpus, English to Korean for instance, there is more room for error and the final text can end up sounding like gibberish to your customer/client, which is far from ideal!

Data privacy issues

The last point, which can be very important if you have proprietary content to translate, relates to MT services’ terms and conditions as regards data privacy. For Google Translate specifically, the following clause states that you are giving Google the right to use and share the content you translate using their service:

While they may seem ‘free’ and ‘simple’ on the face of it, MT services can cost you a lot as a result of inaccurate or badly written translations. You may end up spending more money, time and energy on complicated and drawn-out processes to rectify the situation.

Ultimately, the choice is yours!

Contact Surrey Translation Bureau if you are interested in high-quality translation as a simple and competitive alternative to MT!

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