Machine Translation Needs the Human Touch For Professional Global Business Communications

Pretend you’re traveling in a foreign country. You receive an urgent call from the hospital saying your spouse’s heart has been imprisoned. Would you at least feel relieved to learn that he or she won’t fall over?Human Touch image on Computer screen
If you had to rely on machine translation of that country’s language, that’s just what you might hear, or something equally alarming, amusing or confusing.
The British Medical Journal (, in evaluating the accuracy of various medical terms translated by Google Translate, found that only about 57% were correct. For example, a “cardiac arrest” was translated to mean an “imprisoned heart,” and “your wife is stable” became “your wife cannot fall over.”
Yeah, it’s kind of funny. But then again, it’s kind of not.
What if it was a real life situation when machine translation meant the difference between life and death in the operating room, or prison and freedom in the courtroom, or success and failure in the boardroom?
This is not a condemnation of machine translation in general. The ability of online translation sites, computer software, smart phone apps and other programs to offer quick, generic translations is certainly helping to overcome communication barriers around the world. Professional language service providers are even finding some roles that machine translation can play in the services they offer their clients. Plus, the technology is getting better all the time.
Using machine translation on its own for anything other than a basic, cursory translation could be a huge mistake for your business and your brand. Just as it is critical to convey the subtle but critical differences in medical terminology, it’s equally important to clearly communicate the nuances of your corporate message to global customers.
pocket translator imageMachines simply can’t match humans when it comes to translating accurate, culturally sensitive content from one language to another. Something as simple as word order could affect the quality of your final product. In most translations, the original positions of English words move around in the final sentence of the foreign language. However, a literal machine translation may not make the necessary adjustment, which could drastically alter your message.
By the same token, localizing common English idioms or phrases for different cultures is just something too sophisticated for a machine to handle. Just ask Taco Bell, whose “we’ve got nothing to hide” claim in reference to the quality of their ingredients was once translated on their Japanese website to read “what did we bring here to hide?” The same site, before being taken down in response to public reaction, referred to their “Crunchwrap Supreme-Beef” menu item as “Supreme Court Beef.”
It just shows how quickly a carefully crafted marketing message can turn into a punchline.
Language is a delicate tool that must be wielded well to achieve success, especially when trying to reach new markets in other countries. Word-for-word translations ruled by algorithms and statistic-based search engines might be convenient work-arounds for informal communication, but without human massaging, they don’t yet provide the level of precision required for professional global business communications. For that you need trained human linguists with knowledge and experience in localizing messages for the individual target audience.
We’ll leave you with one of our favorite translation fail examples, which we have to believe came from a machine since it’s hard to imagine a human translator providing such an excruciating contortion. This message was found in an Austrian ski lodge:
“Not to perambulate the corridors in the hours of repose in the boots of ascension.”
We assume it means “Don’t walk the halls at night in your hiking boots.” They probably didn’t want their sleeping guests to be awakened suddenly and have their hearts imprisoned.