Misled by MT?

These days, any translator who’s at all active on social media or who has been to a translation conference in the last couple of years knows what MT, or machine translation, is, and many even use it. Others are not averse to doing PEMT, or Post-editing of Machine Translation for translation agencies or even direct customers. There is no shortage of opinions on these tools and their use in Translation Land, and tempers can get heated in online and offline discussions on this topic.

Some of us use MT when we get stuck on the translation of a term, or even just when we’ve been working days on end and that phrase or expression “we used to know the translation of” continues to elude us. There are certainly plenty of translators who feel it can be a lifesaver for these very reasons. What many of us also know is that it’s best to use it as a guide rather than the gospel truth. Confession: I too have consulted MT when I can’t find a term elsewhere and sometimes it helps me eventually arrive at the term I’m looking for, but more often than not, I just end up staring at a screen full of mistranslations.

I won’t go into the pros and cons of using MT here as they are ubiquitous on social media and in email groups. I would however like to share an experience I had recently that I hope will serve as a cautionary tale to any business, organization or private individual shopping around for a translation.

An old friend contacted me to ask my opinion about the pricing for a translation from Dutch to English she was outsourcing to a translation agency for her employer. She also mentioned that the translation wasn’t perfect, there were mistakes, but hey, we’re all human. (I corrected her and said a translation shouldn’t contain mistakes.)

I gave her my opinion on the rate and offered to have a quick look at the translation to give her an idea whether it was really terrible or just slightly flawed.

The first line or two of the translation was all I needed to see to know it was abominable. Either it wasn’t translated by a native speaker or even a Dutch native with a good command of English or the translator had used MT. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was the latter. So, I “plugged” a couple of lines of the source text, Dutch in this case, into the GDPR-compliant MT tool window (ensuring that these didn’t include any privacy-sensitive details!), and lo and behold: the text appearing in the English box was a verbatim rendering of what I had seen in the English Word document she had sent me to evaluate.

Shock and dismay don’t even begin to cover how I felt upon discovering this. I’m not completely naïve, I know there are some “bad actors” out there, particularly in this business which is unregulated for the most part and one ‘anyone’ can get into as long as they have a computer and an Internet connection.

But the idea that a translation agency allowed this to happen, didn’t notify the client it was using this tool, and then had the gall to charge a client the full rate for translation (including proofreading) was a real reality check for me. Maybe I’m just a hopeless optimist, but I always assumed agencies wouldn’t stoop to this level.

In other words, either the translator working for the agency had used this MT tool unbeknownst to the agency and the agency didn’t proofread it before sending it on to the customer, my friend in this case, or the agency did the translation in-house, also skipping the final step of proofreading. Incidentally, this agency asserts on their website that they only use native speakers and have all translations checked by a proofreader. Apart from false advertising, I believe there is an ethical issue at work here, specifically charging a high price for a product they are not supplying.

Another point to consider is that this example was an into-English translation. What if you need a translation into a more “exotic” language or one very few people can read? How can you know with any degree of certainty that the text you have outsourced has been accurately translated into that language? I don’t know about you, but I find it a very scary thought.

Before I get accused of making assumptions – it could, after all, have been a complete coincidence that the MT tool came up with exactly the same translation as the one this agency sent to my friend – or for tarring all translation agencies with the same brush, I know from what I’ve heard repeatedly that this practice is the exception rather than the rule. Having said that however, what’s to stop other agencies (or translators) from doing this all the time? Their clients are none the wiser, right? Hence this blog.

Far be it from me to preach how agencies (or translators) should run their businesses or how they should go about their translations. There are plenty of agencies out there even offering MT or PEMT to customers that don’t have the budget for a human translation, but these clients know what they’re getting. My problem with the situation described above is the lack of transparency toward the client, and what essentially amounts to a scam, or a con job. Ultimately, this not only hurts the client, but the reputation of honest, ethical and hard-working agencies and translators everywhere.

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