‘The human touch’ – why we cannot rely on machine translation

With the rise of sophisticated artificial intelligence, the prevalence of personal computers and smartphones, we have seen the birth and development of a whole host of online translation engines. Services such as ‘Google Translate’ and ‘Bing Translate’ are designed to supersede the traditional methods of translating one language to another, by use of a specially designed program. The supposed benefits of these ‘machine translation’ tools include accessibility, speed and cost effectiveness, with many of these being free to use at any time online. However, are these translation engines as useful as they initially appear? Today we will be comparing the advantages and disadvantages of these tools, and where human translators stand in the modern day.


We all know one of the greatest pitfalls of translation engines is the accuracy. What you may gain in speed, you more than lose in precision of translation. An easy way to prove this at home, is try translating a sentence in a foreign language using an online translation tool, then switch the languages around and translate it back! More often than not you will end up with a very different sentence than the one you started with. This lack of exactness may not necessarily be a problem if you are only looking to get the gist of a text, but if you need to translate a document of legal or scientific nature, or if you have a duty of care to ensure accuracy such as in medical documents, it is of vital importance. Using a human translator can understand the nuances and quirks of both the original and target language, ensuring the translation is of the utmost similarity to the original.


Similarly, context and colloquial linguistic variation is something that can veritably stump most online tools. More than we realise, language is used in creative ways to represent ideas greater than the text itself. This could be humour, idiomatic expression, and vernacular terms. This is something with a level of nuance that is all but impossible for anyone but a human who is incredibly experienced in translation to achieve. Imagine trying to translate the English expression ‘to beat around the bush’ into Mandarin Chinese! As described by, “Systematic and formal rules are followed by machine translation so it cannot concentrate on a context and solve ambiguity”.


To put something through a machine translator, you require it in digital form, usually in a word or PDF format. However, if you need something such as a foreign birth certificate, book, or handwritten document translated, this may not be possible! Indeed, the document you need translating may even precede the widespread use of computers, such as a historical manuscript. For this, you need a human to cast their eye over the document in person to interpret, transcribe and translate it. The translation can then even be returned to its original formatting in the target language, if necessary.

Why you should choose Marlow Translations

With over 30 years’ experience translating languages in over 50 modern foreign languages, Marlow Translation utilises our long standing and trusted network of mother-tongue translations. This means you can ensure that your translation will be completed with the highest quality and care. Our work follows the code of conduct of the Chartered Institute of Linguists; one of the many reasons a wide range of our 1000 past clients have returned to have their documents translated time and time again. For more information about Marlow Translations, our process, and to get an instant quote, visit our Translations section.