Automatic Translation: Holy Grail or Ultimate Fail?


Technology has been evolving over the years in the hopes of making life easier. One such technology that has been in the works for decades is automatic translation (think Google Translate or BabelFish), but are these programs really all they’re cracked up to be?

Automatic Translation: Holy Grail or Ultimate Fail?

The short answer is no, but they can serve as a fantastic starting point. Although they have come a long way since being used to translate school papers, there are still aspects that may be missed when attempting to create an accurate translation.

Mis-translating homonyms

Context clues are extremely important when it comes to translation. More often than not, automatic translation software misses these clues and opts to use the homonym that is used most frequently in the source language. This can cause embarrassing mistakes and completely change the meaning of your text. For example, in a post about selling tulip bulbs being translated from English to French, automatic translation programs will translate the word “bulb” to “ampoule” (light bulb) rather than “bulbe” (flower bulb). That makes for quite a confusing post from a company in the flower business!

Loss of Nuance

Communicating to an audience in their native language is a delicate dance, even more so given the fact that multiple countries can speak the same language in entirely different ways. If you’re marketing your product in Canada and are required to have your content translated into French, it is extremely important to make sure that you are communicating in French-Canadian French and not European French. Most translation software will default to European French, so unless you have an experienced translator who has been trained in the cultural intricacies of the language, your content may not land with your audience or communicate the message you intended.

Anglicisms and Slang

All languages contain sayings that are unique to them, and not all of them translate directly to other languages. For example, a very common English saying, “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” does not have a direct translation in French. Instead, they say, “c’est la goutte d’eau qui fait déborder le vase” (It’s the drop of water that makes the vase overflow).

Additionally, there are words that can sound the same in two languages but mean completely different things. When used in the wrong context, these are called anglicisms or false friends. An example of this would be when translating “to assist”. Many English-to-French translation softwares will output the French term “assister” which actually means “to attend”. Some anglicisms are deemed appropriate depending on the tone of the content, but it takes an experienced translator to navigate those nuances.

Missing Content

There are many web plugins that claim they will automatically translate your website into any given language. These plugins can be helpful in a pinch, but they will more often than not be able to translate certain areas of your site, making the translation spotty and unprofessional. Nothing will turn a prospective client away faster than a translation that doesn’t respect their language.

Translation Software is a Tool, Not a Solution

Ultimately, there are many instances where automatic translation software can be helpful and save you time. However, when translating products, content, or posts intended to be seen by prospective or current clients, it’s always a good idea to hire a professional translator to ensure your message gets delivered the way you intend.


About Bri

Bri is a marketing coordinator and translator. She finds joy in taking client ideas and translating them onto the page, screen, or even into a whole other language! With experience in graphic design and web design, she can make your dream brand come to life.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply