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An Intro to Machine Translation: Understand When to Use MT and When to Avoid It

By: Calvin Scharffs (VP of Marketing) - Lingotek, Inc.

10 May 2017

Machine translation (MT) is a perfectly acceptable translation alternative, but trouble often follows when there is a lack of understanding or unrealistic expectations. It’s time to explain MT—what it is, what it can and cannot do, and most important, when to use it. Managing expectations of MT is critical to customer satisfaction and to the quality assurance we want to offer our clientele.

What is Machine Translation (MT)?

Machine translation uses software to translate text or speech from one language to another. MT uses a machine translation engine to perform simple substitution of words in one language for words in another, but that alone doesn’t usually produce the highest quality translation of a text. For more accurate translation, recognition of whole phrases and their closest counterparts in the target language is needed.

Sometimes the general meaning of the text is all you need. In those cases, MT provides an acceptable level translation. MT is a good option if you’re on a tight budget, looking for immediate translation, and are okay with less than perfect quality. Use MT to translate less important types of content like tweets, blog comments, blog posts, forums, or message boards.

MT Strengths

  • It’s the fastest way to translate your content into a new language.
  • It’s less expensive.
  • You can add a human review of MT to improve the quality.
  • You can use translation memories (TM) to remember your key terms.
  • You can integrate MT with a cloud-based TMS.
  • It’s good for translating web content and web pages.

MT Weaknesses

  • Depending on the language pairs, it has a 60 - 80% accuracy rate.
  • Some content translates better with MT than others:
    • Different languages work better with different MT engines.
    • Some MT engines perform better with different subjects.
  • It is difficult to translate technical terms, slang, or nuanced meanings.
  • It can lack flow and sound stilted.

Choosing the Right MT Engine

My suggestion would be to choose a TMS with a platform that integrates with several popular MT providers, so you can see your translated content immediately. If you have an MT provider that has an exposed API, most connectors should be able to integrate with it.

Some engines specialize in a special language group or region (such as Asian or Middle Eastern languages), others specialize by content type. There are many engines available on the market. The key is to research and consider the type of engine that will be a good fit for your content.

Content Value Index

Not all content is created equal. This Content Value Index lets you match your content translation needs with the right type of translation and review. MT offers good translation, community translation is better, and translation done by certified professional linguists is the best. The Content Value Index can help you determine if your content requires good, better, or best translation quality.

Use the Content Value Index to decide which type of translation is best for your content, time constraints, budget, and the level of quality needed.

Machine Translation

Sometimes the general meaning of a text is all you need from your translation. Machine translation in addition to Translation Memory (TM) provides the perfect combination of rapid, trusted and cost-effective translations when getting the general meaning across is sufficient.

Community Translation

Translating with community users provides colloquial and subject matter accuracy for lower cost and reasonable speed. Community translation is less expensive, but may not provide the level of quality and consistency offered by professional translators. Use Community Translation for knowledge base articles, video subtitles, simple web pages, podcast transcripts, Wiki entries, and online newspapers.

Professional Translation

Professional translation offers the highest quality and includes additional levels of review to ensure accuracy. Use Professional Translation for very important content like press releases, brochures, and white papers, to name a few items.


If you wanted to set a land speed record, you wouldn’t choose a bike. If you wanted to cruise around town and take in the sites, you wouldn’t choose a bullet car that travels over 300 mph. It’s all about choosing the right vehicle for the task at hand. The same is true for translation. There will be projects where MT is a perfect fit and there are other projects where it isn’t recommended. By understanding what MT is--the strenghts and weaknesses—you’ll find that it is a perfectly suitable tool that can improve the cost and efficiency of your translations.

Calvin is a dedicated executive with over 20 years of experience managing products, sales, marketing, operations, and personnel. His experience ranges from work with a Fortune 500 companies to small start-ups.