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«Return to Blog List Why Online Language Translation Applications Are a Bad Idea

One of the blogs I follow recently recommended an online translation application. For some reason, I was not able to submit a comment on the post, so I’ll air my comment here. The service suggested was Nice Translator. My wife, Angela, is a professional translator, which gives me some insight into translation issues.

First, most translation applications do a reasonably good job of translating individual words, provided the words have only one meaning. It gets a bit more difficult when a word can be both a verb and a noun (i.e., I will ride to the store, vs. I need a ride to the store). The better applications (Google Translation, for instance) differentiate between usages of a word and give you several options. This is good, but you may have no way of knowing which of the options is suitable, which is a problem.

Beyond single words—sentences and paragraphs—all translation applications fall far short of delivering usable translation. Even relatively simple sentences are routinely mangled. Sometimes (if you’re lucky) the translation will just be awkward. If you’re not so lucky, the meaning can be completely changed. Why? Software is unable to understand the context of the words, and as a result is unable to make decisions about rephrasing or selecting other words that more accurately express an idea.

Assuming your motivation for using a translation application is a need to communicate to a non-english speaking audience, the app is going to let you down. In fact, the awkward sentence structure and confusing words amplify your inability to communicate with your non-english speaking audience. Maybe you’ll provide them with a good laugh, and they’ll give you points for trying. But they won’t be fooled into thinking you understand them.

If you need to communicate with a non-english speaking audience, work with a good human translator with experience in the subject matter. It will cost you some money, but you will also communicate with your audience (and you won’t have to worry about looking blöd).

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