Friday, November 5, 2010

Machine translation + Post-editing... Really?

I was going to start blogging by talking about how to start, how to create a CV and a cover letter, etc., but this morning I received one of those LinkedIn e-mails, in which there was an alert about a new post in a forum about translation: Machine translation and human post-editing.
I felt it could be interesting to see what that person wanted to say about machine translation, but my surprise was to find another of those people who think machines may substitute translators in the future, and that giving the translator a machine translation to post-edit actually helps the translator and, therefore, that should be pay with lower rates. I really couldn't leave it there, so I had to reply to that article. Here I will copy what I said in that forum, what do I think about automated/machine translation, and why me and other translators feel beaten up every time we read one of those articles.

And it really scared me that SDL allows something like that to be published, because it might mean that they actually practise that type of translation. I just hope I am wrong.

And this is what I posted in the LinkedIn group where this article was posted:

"I am sorry to disagree, Adriana, but I feel automated translation is an utterly useless tool. I agree with Elena that it seems we are the baddies in this movie, because we just want to do our job, which is delivering quality translations. Machine translations ARE a re-translation, because, at the end of the day, you still have to read the original text and see how close to the machine-translated text is. And believe me, I have done a few of those, and I would be quicker by just translating the text from scratch.

You say that machine translators are made, apart from the "money saving" reason, because there is no time to do proper translations. Well, it takes me the same time to translate a text from zero than reading the crap machine translation, read then the English text and think of which part of the machine-translated text do I need to change. 98% of the times is everything.

It's like when someone asks you: "What does this word mean in your language?" and then they tell you: "Is this X?" And from that point on, you cannot thing. That person has put a word in your mind, and you brain can only think about that word, even though you know is the wrong one. That is the feeling I have sometimes with automated translations.

I am not going to say that they are useless. I use them when they give me a bad English text to translate, which I cannot understand, and then they also give me the French. Being French closer to Spanish, I do an automated translation from French into Spanish to see if, this way, I can understand better what the English says. I do not speak French and I have never learnt French at school. I can tell you, sometimes it gives me an idea, but the result is nowhere near a proper translation, so I always do like a mixture between the translation I understand from the English and what that French translation has given me. Other times, it just confuses me even more, and I end up asking the client to please explain me what they mean with that specific sentence and to make sure the English text makes total sense.

Finally, I am going to give you an easy example.

It's Sunday and your toilet breaks. You don't want to pay the expensive rates of a plumber, so you decide that you can fix it yourself, because "it can't be too difficult". You dismantle the whole system and try to see where the problem is and, after one hour, you decide that you can't fix it. You assemble everything again, as good as you can, because you aren't an expert in plumbing and decide to call the plumber. But you tell him that, because you have already tried to fix the problem, you are going to pay him only a third of the fee, and no Sunday fee at all but a normal weekday fee.

What do you think the plumber will say?

Same will happen with any professional. Do you think a lawyer will reduce the fees he charges you just because you have done half of the research he needed? NO. Is a chemist/Pharmacist giving you a discount if you tell them that you don't need the paper wrapping the medicines or the bag they offer you? NO. Will a restaurant manager give you a discount if you grab the pizza from the over yourself? Probably no (maybe he invites you to an extra glass of wine, but I doubt he will allow you to leave the restaurant paying 1/3 of the bill only). Or imagine something even more puzzling: you need an open-heart surgery and the only clinic that provides that service is a private clinic so, in order to save you some cash, you tell the anesthetist that you will put yourself the anesthetist, and you ask the nurses to leave the premises, because your brother and sister will help out the surgeon. What do you think it would happen?

So, what makes anybody think that translators should be different?

I suppose the case that you expose, in which a company decides to use the MT they have to create a new translation will work in a 2-5% of the cases? I can only think that it can work if you have an MT of a manual of a, let's say, a camera, and they have created a new camera that has only a few updates and the manual is practically the same. Then, yes, this could work. But wouldn't make more sense to just give the translator the MT and ask him to charge the 100% matches at a reduce rate? At the end of the day, maybe the previous translator had a few mistakes in the translation, and the new translator decides that some words need to be changed."

I think machine translations are too little too frequent and are destroying the industry all together. One thing is to use them to just have an idea of what a text reads, but using it as if it was a translation made by a person to then give it to a translator to edit, I think is unfair for us, as professionals, and also an insult to our job and our industry altogether.

Feel free to post a comment with your thought about this.

Thanks for reading.



  1. Thanks for your comments on the subject.

    Indeed, some people do not get what Machine Translation is about and confuse it with a machine that will do everything for you and get you free translations as good as professional translations (and I believe quality translation is not something any software can get you, there are too many variables, meanings, subtilities...).

    However, I do believe that there are lots of possible applications for MT. In some contexts, I do believe that there could be high productivity gains.

    A couple of months ago I had a similar discussion with Mr. Dion Wiggins CEO of Asia Online (you can check out at:

    His point was clear: "I agree if you want quality, you should trust a professional translator, but how that professional translator executes the translation task at hand is what is the change in the market now. MT now has reached a quality level where it can be a true performance enhancer. This was not the case just 2 year ago."

    And I believe this is an interesting point in this discussion.

    We also do not have to confuse what clients are asking. I'm not saying that this was what was asked in the case you describe, but the request to edit/proofread is starting to be more than common, my opinion is that we should set what productivity we can achieve for such a service and quote it accordingly. If it's more expensive than plain translation from scratch, then be it. But saying simply no to such a new service could maybe not be a good idea.
    (Comments on this thought can be found on:

    My two cents on the subject.

    Víctor Alonso Lion @valion

  2. Hi Curri.

    First, excuse my English (I'm not a translator and English is not my first language)

    I think you have a very strong bias here. Your examples about being operated and you puting yourself the anesthetist is beyond the scope. It would be more correct if you say it's the surgeon using a piece of software to find the tumor and help with the surgery (which is how the modern surgery is done, regardless).

    I would use a different example. This is a blog. Actually, this is *your* blog. My question is... do you know how to program? Do you know HTML markups? CSS? Javascript? Probably not. You took automatic CMS, used automated and pre-formated blank pages, and made the page yourself. So... what happened to the programmers? Aren't they supposed to get an earning from this kind of things?

    Well, they do. They are paid for high quality web pages, often Bussiness to Bussiness Webs and application. What Blogger (and other free "do-it-yourself" applications) do is to popularize programming. Now everybody and his dog have a blog. A free blog. A blog that no freelance programmer has been paid for. And that's not a bad thing. Programmers have their niche yet. Just that their niche is no longer "to build cheap webs".

    Machine Translator are getting better and better. In each iteration of technology, they will be better than in the previous one. iTranslator is way better than anything Bablefish dreamed to be in the late 90's. And soon, they will make very good translations. This will make a huge popularization of translations, just like happened with web design. For example, i can be use it to publish my personal blog in 3 or 4 languages, something I WONT do if I have to pay for it. If it's free, hey, it's a nice thing to add to my blog. If it's not free, I will live without it. It's my personal blog, I really dont mind if it have a mistake or two. Sure, right now, Machine translators do an awful job. But the keyword here is "do an awful job... YET"

    Human translators still will be paid for their quality works. Just that MT will fill the business niche of low expectation, low cost translations. Just like the "do-it-yourself" Web Design tools.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Víctor.

    I agree with the point you made as in we should not just say "no" to all. The problem is that agencies will pay you whatever rate they think it deserves, most of the times the same as a proofreading, but the truth is that, as you said, it might take you longer than translating from scratch, and they won't be paying you that extra time. So, to me, to avoid those issues (the client thinking that, because they have given you a text translated by googletranslate, they can pay you a third of your rate), I rather not tempt luck and be not so keen of it.

    If one day I was asked to do a post-editing and they told me: charge me by the hour, then I wouldn't complain, precisely because I could give the hourly-rate that I think is fair (I believe that a translator has to charge the same hourly-rate for everything, because is a price on the time you spend doing that activity, and not what type of activity you do), and, as you say, if I spend less time, then less money will be paid to me and if I spend more time than translating from scratch, then that will also be reflected on the invoice.

    Unfortunately, I know too many cases in which the machine translation has made the translator to waste precious time and ending up ignoring the text given and translating from scratch... but being paid just as a proofreading. And that is not nice.

  4. Internet ate my post :P. I'll write it shorter this time.

    Hi Curri!

    I would like to excuse myself for my poor english grammer, as I'm not a translator myself.

    I think you have a strong bias here. Machine translators are here to stay. You'll do better accepting it and adapting to it.

    I think your operation example is not fair. The fair comparison would be this blog. You have made your own blog. Do you know something about programming? Web Design? Do you know HTML, mark ups, CSS, java? Probably not. You used automatic tools to build the webpage using standarized themes that made most of the job for you, without ever writing a single HTML sentence.

    So... what happened with the web programmer's wage? They are getting paid for different things. They are paid for Bussiness to Bussiness applications and webs. They are paid for complex Webs, or stylish designs. They are paid for high impact software. Just that they are no longer paid to build cheap personal web pages or blogs.

    Same goes with Translations. Corporations will keep paying for good translations. When someone wants to publish a novel in a different language, they still will ask for a human translator. But when someone just want to publish their personal blog in a different language, or a fangroup just want to translate their fanzine, they are going to use MT, and *maybe* a proofreading after that. Get over it, that's how technology works.

    Late 90's Babelfish was awful. iTranslator is not perfect, but quite good. In a couple of years, Machine Translators will be awesome. It's just a matter of computer power. And computer's double their power exactly each 18 months, as Moore's law shows.

    You can either evolve, or die. Just like smiths evolve into mechanics when the horse was surpassed by the car.

  5. Gus, the example that you give me about the blog isn't good either. It coudl be applicable only if I was now going to a web designer and tell him: I want you to use my blog to make my website. Keep everything as it is and only adapt things that you think would work best :)
    And doing so, I tell him I will pay him only 300 euros for that, instead of the 900 he was requesting, because everything was done by blogger first.

    My point is not to erradicate Machine translations from the web. As I said, I used them sometimes to know what a website says or even what the original French of an English translation given to me actually means. But what I feel unfair is that they give to translators half-made translations for us to fix the problem, which will probably take more than doing it from scratch, AND they pay that as if it was just a proofreading from a translation made by other human translator. That is my complaint.

    As I also said before, if I was given a machine translation and asked to post-edit it BUT charging what I would normally charge for a translation, then I wouldn't complain at all.

    I hope now you understand what I am trying to say :)

    PS: I did some html... I had to fix a few things that I couldn't fix with blogger, so I went to the html version and adjust them ;)
    PS2: Gracias por pasarte :)

  6. I couldn't agree more Curri. I actually got to correct, or I should say rewrite, a translation done by someone else who, by the looks of it, just used Google translator or any other tool of that kind. I started correcting it and it was a nightmare, I decided I'd completely redo the second part. My supervisor gave me both options since the client agreed with any measure we found convenient taking, it was far easier to start from scratch. Having given this example, I don't know how can anyone think machine translation is a translation technique at all or how can anyone consider it useful to some extent. The day a machine will substitue a human translator will be the day a machine can think and make decisions like a human being and that, my friend, is still some centuries away.

  7. MT might be useful if it is well-prepared from end to end, i.e. the writers use some controlled, unambigous language, the MT system customized to that language, the dictionaries are well maintained etc. etc. Unfortunately, this integral approach is rarely used. Instead, MT is used to cut costs at the translation phase, without spending too much time on customizing the MT engine or even improving the style of the source text. So we, the translators, get the same crap for post-editing that we got all the years before, but for lower rates...

  8. Thanks to everybody for your comments.

    I share the thoughts with Anonymous. In the discussion over at LinkedIn, the person who wrote the article explained a little bit more what they meant by machine translation. It was more about a software that it seems some companies can develop (I think SDL is one of them) by adding rules, vocabulary/dictionaries, and even adding rules they get from whenever the system has translated something wrong. So in this case, it is a piece of engineering, created on that purpose and only when the client asks to be used. It also seems that it is only for internal purposes, i.e., for their own translators to use, as a way of helping them do faster translators. In that case, yes, maybe there is nothing wrong with that, it might be helpful in some cases.

    The problem comes when these people are talking everywhere about how good is their product, how easy os for translators to deliver quality, etc., and this is misunderstood by the general public. Have you ever played to the «Chinese wispers»? Is that game (normally played at school) where you form a circle with your friends, and you say something quick to your friend on your left and then they repeat whatever they understood to the firend on their left, and so on, so when the message comes back to you, the message has been completely changed. Well, you will all agree that, nowadays, it is very easy to say something "not accurate" on the web, and that will become a big snow ball and end up beign nothing like it was at the beginning. This is what I am afraid will happen in this industry with the MT's. If a certain company has developed a certain way to make translations easier, and they use it only for internal purposes, then it's fine by me. But the REALITY is that it is not always like that. There are plenty of agencies, plenty of developers (web, software, videogames, media...), plenty of individuals, who probably don't have enough information to know the difference between the software these companies are developing and any freeware tool that you can find anywhere in the web that can do a "translation" for free. And they would just use those free tools to do a translation that then they will send to you (sometimes they will even tell you that another translator did it), and ask you to "proofread" it or maybe edit it at a lower price. Yes, sometimes you have the chance to have a look at those documents, but sometimes you don't have two hours to read through and see where are you getting into, but just 15 mnins maybe, until they may give the task to someone else. You might have a quick look and don't realise of how horrendous the translation is. And as Theworldinmyhands said, sometimes you accept the task and then realise that the translator was, in fact, Mr Bablefish or his cousing Googletranslate, or any of the multiple tools you can find on the internet.

    I wish this was an ideal world in which this doesn't happen and people only use Bablefish to do their own thing, or to publish their own blog in 20 languages, but the reality is different. And that is what is bad for us.