The possibilities of machine translation, or why translators should start honing their editing skills

The subject of machine translation is a hot topic. Whilst many clients seem keen to try it, I often hear fellow translators talk about it with scorn, sarcasm and hostility. Rather than pointing out every time Google Translate gets it wrong, wouldn’t it be more constructive if we thought about how MT can benefit translators? Let me illustrate with a real-life example.

Recently, the company I work for received a text to be translated from German into five languages. Our established practice is that the German web editor makes an initial, rough translation into English, after which I edit it into a text that can be translated into the remaining languages. As an experiment, we tried an alternative approach: with the help of the machine translation plug-in in our translation software, is it possible to cut out the first step and go straight to the editing stage?


First draft: machine translation

Answer: It is most definitely possible, even if a number of factors facilitated the process for this particular campaign:

  • We are already familiar with the client, the subject matter, the website and the style of the content.
  • I have some (basic) knowledge of German.
  • The German editor was available to answer any questions and provide feedback.
  • The project is target-oriented and allows for a fair amount of liberty when it comes to editing the English text.

These points indicate that at this point in time, the process may not be suitable for all translation projects. However, as machine translation programs become ever more sophisticated and reliable, there is no reason why a similar model will not be employed for other projects in the future. Hence what I wrote in my first post on this blog – that “it is more useful to have in-depth knowledge of two languages (English and your mother tongue) than average knowledge of many different languages” – may well be about to change. I seem to have been closer to predicting the future when I said that it is possible that “the role of the translator will change focus from translation to editing”.

An interesting point to make is that MT was used not to aid translation into my own language (which I know better than the machine) but to enable me to work with a language I do not usually translate from.


Second draft: edited by a human

So, did the experiment make the German editor superfluous? Hardly – after coordinating, reviewing and publishing the campaign material, it rather freed up some time for him to work on other translations.

Exciting times indeed – rather than making translators redundant, machine translation may enable us to translate from other languages than English and take on more of an editing role. Thus it has the potential to enrich our lives and make our working day more diverse.

And the actual result of the experiment? Well, judge for yourself – it is currently live in English, German, Swedish, Danish, Dutch and Russian at


One response to “The possibilities of machine translation, or why translators should start honing their editing skills

  1. Pingback: The possibilities of machine translation - Making Waves Blog

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