Today I came across a Polish website that had obviously been translated into English by what are referred to in the industry as statistical machine translation engines. The English section had a subsection called “The Ladies Work”. It took while to figure out that this wasn’t a breach of the Sex Discrimination at Work Act. Rather it was a literal translation from the Polish of “Damy pracę” – “damy” which can be translated as “ladies” but most often means “we are offering” and “pracę” i.e. “work” or “jobs”, so it should have been translated as “employment vacancies”.
This reminded me of an article I came across from Oxford Science Editing (http://www.oxfordscience.org/translation-editing-software-bad-reputation/) on Why Translation and Editing Software is Bad for Your Reputation. The article lists some pretty obvious reasons as to why translation and editing software fails and will fail to replace human translators and editors, but these are reasons we frequently forget, when caught up in the frenzy to save money. These arguments do, however, need repeating in relation to specialist areas, such as the law.
At Lacrosse we’ve been providing language-related services for nearly twenty years now and our key customers are corporate in-house legal departments, as well as leading law firms. I can say with some modesty that we understand this industry and the expectations lawyers have when it comes to tight deadlines, working nights and weekends, dealing with a wide range of documents, from wind turbine construction plans, through legal marketing material to the bread and butter of law firms such as due diligence reports, share purchase agreements, memoranda and the like. In an age of global financial and economic crises, however, we’ve also witnessed first hand the pressures this industry faces. The pressure comes partly from increased competition, seeing the standard hourly billing model increasingly replaced with capped fees for assignments. For the past few years the word “crisis” has loomed large over everything, serving both as an explanation to implement drastic saving plans, and to use price as the sole criteria for supplier selection. But then the centuries’ old question rears its head, namely: is taking the lowest offer really saving us money?
The translation industry faces similar pressures. Rapid technological development, thanks to the advent of MT (Machine Translation), with Google Translate being perhaps the best-known, have improved tremendously from the early days. Just a translation of this last phrase by Google Translate into Polish (“poprawiły się ogromnie od pierwszych dni”), shows that if you want to get an overall idea of what your foreign-language text is about, Google Translate does the job. So if these tools are getting better and our objective is to continually cut costs and save money, does this signify the demise of the traditional translation industry, to be supplanted before long by cloud-based free online tools?
Please do bear in mind, at Lacrosse we are far from being part of some Luddite fringe, railing against technological progress in the translation industry. Quite the reverse; we are deploying the latest technology and we’ve invested heavily in tools that enhance translation quality and project management, and yes, also helping bring down your spend on translation over time! Yet we strongly believe that any tool is only as good as the people who use it and understand how it works.
Why then do we think it’s a false economy to rely too much on machine translation or go for the cheapest offers, of which there are plenty?
There’s no such thing as a free lunch: Of course Google Translate will translate a legal opinion, but we don’t recommend this, if only for the simple reason that most likely you’ll be in breach of the NDA with your client, as you are transferring, probably without knowing it, the rights to the content to Google.
Translation software is not savvy: While the general sense of the text might be conveyed, remember that Google Translate translates each word on a statistical basis, i.e. it is not intelligent. It does not consider the context in the same way a human does, so it will not know whether the opinion is prepared under continental law or common law, or whether it relates to competition law or capital markets in the way a trained translator will. The tools will fail to see that the original might be unclear or contain lapses, requiring some additional consultation. On a purely linguistic level it will fail to choose the proper inflected form, which would look sloppy if it was presented to a superior or client, or appeared on your company’s website.
The results of translation and grammar errors cast doubt on your diligence and abilities: We operate in a services industry and the effect of our work is not tangible or easily describable. What we deliver is efficiency, trust, timeliness and specialist support that can be invaluable for example to the success or outcome of a transaction. Would you really feel secure if presented with a text that contains basic grammatical and terminological errors? Improper use of the Present Perfect tense may not matter particularly in documents that are required for a regulatory filing, while if you are preparing a claim or a contract then the absence of an article (e.g. the [particular] agreement or [any] agreement) can actually jeopardize your case.
Confidential content can find its way online: Few of us know that Google, via its terms and conditions assumes the right to use content that is processed with their tools. This means that you may get a good idea of what your document is about but at the same time Google will use your content to improve its machine translation engine, and your translation may pop up again in someone else’s use of the tool. Even if using Google Translate has never crossed your mind, have you actually considered what your translation provider is doing with your documents and how they are processed? How many public mail servers have your highly confidential documents been sent to? A translation service is not about translation only. Even if the service is good and affordable, do you want to entrust your business critical documentation to someone who cannot ensure the security and confidentiality of your data?
Do you want to buy cheap or buy smart: A cheap solution often comes with a number of hidden costs. Have you ever tried to price the time you spend on correcting a text you are not happy with, the stress caused by a missed deadline or the frustration that comes from seeing a jumble of inconsistent key terms in an ongoing transaction? A professional provider, working according to accepted European industry standards, will agree on terminology or on correctives actions to ensure that expectations on both sides are met. If your translation tenders are decided by price only, then the winner may be using machine translation without any human post-editing. After all the customer is still getting a translation, of sorts. Your supplier will not be looking at the relationship as a partnership which can endure over the long-term. A smart provider investing in a client relationship, will however use technology to analyze your content for both internal repetition and repetition against that already translated. That way you should be able to negotiate preferred terms with your translation provider and bring costs down over time, while limiting your risk and saving the time involved in correcting deficient translation work, not to mention the time saving in the turnaround alone .
The above arguments illustrate some of the dangers of using free translation software or going purely with the cheapest translation solution. The tools we’ve considered are democratizing translation for sure, helping us break down language barriers in everyday simple communication. However, they won’t substitute professional translation services in providing presentable texts for doing business. So the next time you have a translation project, the results of which are critical to your business or a client relationship, please consider these issues and partner with an established, professional language service provider. After all, your reputation and your time can be priceless.