Understanding the limits of machine translation for multilingual marketing

It’s been hard recently to avoid the continued chatter around new and emerging AI technology in the marketing space. Ever since ChatGPT made its way into the professional domain last year, people have been turning to machine learning and artificial intelligence for everything from social media posts to creating award-winning art! So it’s understandable that for many marketers, there is an assumption that this tech will provide a quick and cost-effective solution for their translation requirements too.

And while it’s certainly true that machine-based translation has its place (and has been around for many years), it’s important to remember that at the moment, it’s not quite advanced enough to translate marketing content well without human intervention. To consistently create meaningful translations that truly resonate with local audiences, you need to do more than shift the words being used from one language to another.

When it comes to effective communication, human translators remain essential.

This article not only looks at the reasons why human interaction in translation and localisation are essential, but also addresses some common misconceptions about the speed and cost of human translators over machines in the context of multilingual marketing. Our research for The true cost of poor translation illustrated that far from being a quick and cheap alternative, if used in isolation, the costs of using automated translations might end up being higher than you think.


Understanding context and nuance

One of the key reasons why human translators are essential for European language translation is their ability to understand context. For example, in German, the word “Gift” when translated in a binary fashion means “poison”. A machine translation tool may not be able to determine which meaning is intended without context, leading to potentially disastrous misunderstandings.

Human translators are able to analyse the broader context of a word in a sentence within a text, and choose the correct translation accordingly.

Another advantage is a human ability to understand the nuances of European languages. Take French for instance, where there are many different verb forms and tenses, and the meaning of a sentence can change based on the use of pronouns. Human translators are able to interpret the intended meaning of a sentence or passage based on the context in which it is used. They can also identify and translate idioms, metaphors, and other figurative language that machine translation tools may struggle to recognise.

For example, the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs” means it is raining heavily. A machine translation tool might translate this phrase literally, resulting in confusion. A trained translator, on the other hand, would recognise the idiom as a part of the usual pattern of speech, and translate it appropriately for the target language.


Cultural differences

Language and culture are closely intertwined, and a translation that is appropriate in one culture may be completely inappropriate in another. Human translators are able to navigate these cultural differences and adjust their translations accordingly. They can also provide cultural explanations or annotations that help the reader understand the context of the text.

For example, certain words or phrases that are acceptable in one language may be inappropriate or offensive in another. Skilled human translation experts are able to understand and interpret the cultural context of a piece of text and produce a translation that’s both accurate and culturally appropriate.

Machine translation may be able to provide a literal translation, but it will lack the cultural understanding necessary to accurately convey the intended meaning.

The use of inclusive language in translations is another area that machine translation is not well equipped to deal with. Translating from a non-gendered language like English to a gendered language like German is a particularly complex and challenging task that cannot be easily automated. Professional translators ensure that your brand voice and inclusive language is accurately and sensitively reflected in your localised copy.


Spotting errors

Humans are obviously fallible, it’s part of what makes us human, but when considering translation and localisation, human beings, unlike machines, are able to catch errors such as inconsistencies, mistranslations and inappropriate language in a robust way leading to a higher degree of accuracy in their final output.

A good translator can also ensure that the final translation is grammatically correct and stylistically appropriate. This requires a high level of attention to detail and language expertise that is difficult for machines to replicate.

Machine translation works by breaking down sentences into smaller components and analysing them using algorithms to generate a translation. While this can be effective for simple, straightforward texts, they can struggle with more complex sentences, resulting in translations that are awkward or confusing to read – let alone reflect your brand’s specific tone of voice.

By using human translators to check for errors and inconsistencies, brands can ensure that their translations are of the highest quality. This can help to build trust with customers and avoid the potential negative consequences of poor translation, such as lost revenue, damage to reputation, and legal disputes.


Machines are quicker and therefore more efficient…

While it is true that human translation may take longer and cost more than machine translation, machines are not necessarily more accurate or reliable, and the accuracy and quality of the translation are crucial for effective communication. Rushing a translation or relying solely on machine translation tools can result in translations that can damage a company’s reputation.

In fact, the time and cost savings of using machine translation can quickly evaporate if errors or inaccuracies are discovered, leading to costly revisions and potentially damaging misunderstandings.

When it comes to larger projects or ongoing translations, human translators can often work more efficiently because they are able to establish a consistent style and tone throughout the entire project, ensuring that the copy reads smoothly and accurately.

Machine translation tools can struggle to maintain consistency across a large volume of text. They may translate similar phrases differently or use a different style or tone in different parts of the text. This can result in a disjointed and confusing final product.

Translators can also adapt their approach to suit the needs of the client. They are able to consider specific requirements or preferences and ensure that the final translation meets their client’s needs. This level of customisation is difficult for machine translation tools to replicate.

So, while machine translation tools have their advantages and their place, they cannot replace the nuanced understanding of language and culture that human translators provide. While human translation may be slower and more expensive than machine translation, it is important to remember that accuracy and quality are crucial for effective communication.


Using machine translation for multilingual marketing

When it comes to choosing between human translators and machine translation, it is important to consider the specific needs of your translation project. For simple or straightforward translations, machine translation – coupled with a review by a professional translator – can be a viable and cost-efficient option. However, for more complex texts or those that require a deep understanding of cultural context, human translation is essential.

Ultimately, in the context of multilingual marketing, effective communication is key to building relationships with international customers and stakeholders.

By investing in human translation, marketers can ensure that their messages are accurately and appropriately conveyed in any language or cultural context.

If you want to know more about the perils of poor translation, why not download our whitepaper, or if you’re looking for a partner to help with your translation project, get in touch.

This article was originally published in April 2023 and has since been updated.