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Global businesses really need machine translation: here’s why

For those of us looking to do business internationally, this is an exciting time. The internet offers opportunities to connect on a worldwide scale.

It’s no surprise that more companies are seizing this chance to enter new markets. Rather than resenting the presence of foreign competitors, we can reach out to overseas users. Above all, we should look to the emerging markets where internet use is opening up to new populations.

The map of Internet Population and Penetration, published by Oxford University researchers in 2013 using World Bank data from 2011, shows at a glance just how huge this potential is. Countries in a lighter shade of red (most notably much of Asia) can be expected to see rapid growth as more of their population gains access to the web.

Note too how few of these countries have English as a majority language. We are dealing with a multilingual internet population. New generations of users want to be informed, entertained and served in their own language, and it’s a reasonable expectation. Internet users today also expect their interactions to be instant, or as close to it as possible.

The question is how to serve this need. Machine Translation (MT) is one solution that has a great deal to offer.

The benefits of machine translation

Forget what you know about MT from web-based tools. This is a technology that has come a long way in recent years. MT specialists can develop systems that are tailored to your precise needs, resulting in much higher levels of accuracy. At the same time, these custom systems keep your data confidential.

Alongside this are the time and cost benefits. Consider that a custom MT engine can translate into all of your target languages on-demand, with almost instant results. If you don’t have the budget to hire professional translators for each target language, or don’t have time to wait, MT can be an ideal alternative. It’s an option that’s especially attractive if you need large volumes of non-critical data processed.

What if, for example, you want to connect with non-English speakers? MT can help you produce a steady stream of content that can be published across social media. Similarly, if you need to know what speakers of other languages are saying about your product or service, MT can help you to stay informed. From blog posts and social media mentions to product reviews, using MT to translate back into your own language lets you see the whole picture.

MT can be useful too in situations where it’s not possible to have on-demand human translation. For instance, MT can make live chat with speakers of other languages possible, or can allow for real-time translations from financial markets or world news.

The best of both worlds?

These technological developments are exciting for anyone seeking to break down language barriers. However, there are times when professional translators can give your content the polish that MT output may lack. Post-edited MT is an option that offers the best of both worlds: MT engines produce the first draft, while skilled linguists focus on refining the translation.

When making the decision between MT, a traditional translation service, or post-edited MT, think in terms of ‘fit for purpose’. MT alone is cost-efficient when information-sharing in high volume or with minimal delay is the primary concern. Information that is typically read once and then discarded (such as instant messaging or an email exchange) can also be handled by MT. As long as the output is understandable, it will have served its purpose. At the other extreme are publications where accuracy is critical, such as medical, legal and academic texts. Here the services of a skilled linguist will be needed.

Most content intended for the web will fall somewhere in-between. Maybe you want to publish content to social media and need to adapt to your readers’ communication style, but don’t have time to weigh every word. Or, on the other hand, your aim might be to produce an online help guide, where accuracy is more important than style. In either case, some light post-editing of the MT output can help you reach your goal of ‘fit for purpose’ translations, while still being budget-friendly.

The life-span of your content can be a useful guide. As its intended shelf-life increases, it’s more likely to benefit from full post-editing. Some content will need close attention to both style and accuracy, such as key pages on your website, presentations, or your profile. Content that showcases who you are and what you do helps build your online reputation. Careful post-editing of MT output is a worthwhile investment to make certain you are presenting yourself at your best.

The beauty of combining MT with human post-editing is that you choose the level you need, to suit your needs and budget. Find the right balance and you can connect globally while making smart use of your resources.

Author | Andy Way

Andy Way
Prof has more than 25 years experience in machine translation research and development, both in business and academia. He built up a world-leading group at Dublin City University, and has over 230 peer-reviewed publications in the field. He is currently President... More

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