The dangers and risks of using machine translation for your English to Chinese translation project
Machine translation is being touted as the future of translation and localization - a low cost or even virtually cost free way to promote one’s business in every corner of the world. While it is true that new and better machine translation systems are being unveiled at a rapid rate and that existing machine translation products are being continuously upgraded, they remain a highly risky proposition that can do more than damage your business when applied to English to Chinese translation – two languages that are so vastly different from each other not only grammatically and linguistically but also culturally and socially.
What are the risks and what could possibly go wrong?
Let’s look at a simple example, using what is becoming the world standard in free machine translation tools, Google Translate:
Here is Google’s English to Chinese translation
Now let’s take the Chinese and translate it
back to English:
This simple, straight-forward sentence works
perfectly in French:
Here is the French translated
It also translates correctly into
Here is the Spanish translated
Notwithstanding the issue as to whether to use the formal (vous or Usted) or the informal (tu), Google Translate correctly handled French and Spanish, two languages where the grammar around simple sentences is relatively similar, however, Google’s machine translation tool completely fell apart when handling two grammatically dissimilar languages, translation from English into Chinese.
Once you move onto more complex or lengthy sentences, even the French and Spanish will not read well. The risks in terms of English to Chinese translation are all the more magnified.
As an exercise, may I suggest that you do the following: take a paragraph (any two or three sentences) from your own website or online marketing materials, place them in Google Translate (http://translate.google.com) and translate them into Simplified Chinese. Then take the output (what appears on the right side), put it back into the left side, reverse the languages (switch it from English to Simplified Chinese to Simplified Chinese to English), and look at the output. Then, ask yourself: is this what I would like a potential Chinese buyer of my products or services to be reading about my company?
Not yet convinced? Try the same exercise on these other popular machine translators:
An even greater risk than just looking awkward
Here is an example that has been making the
rounds on the web. It is an extreme case, but it does illustrate the
dangers, especially when dealing with two languages that have such
A Chinese restaurant wanted an English
translation of their name. Here is the result:
Let’s take it a step further in understanding what is being put at risk: why, when it comes to English-Chinese translation in particular, machine translation, even expensive systems that one pays for, are incapable of providing something satisfactory.
Word sense disambiguation
An insurmountable challenge for even the most sophisticated machine translation systems
Word sense disambiguation occurs when translation without context changes the intended meaning of a word or expression. This is a common risk in any language, as many commonly used words and expressions, no matter the language, have multiple meanings.
Take the very commonly
used expression “make up”, do you mean:
The wrong choice can lead to a very odd sounding sentence in the foreign language.
Taking it a step further, think of the number of metaphors that are commonly used in English, for instance, the metaphor “a piece of cake”. It might refer to an actual cake, or it might mean that the action or task at hand is something very simple to complete.
An example of poor word disambiguation hurting a website is the government site of the city of Philadelphia, which employs machine translation to render its web pages into multiple languages. The heading “Lead Story” is translated as a “Story of Lead,” as in lead paint. The mayor, in this case, has the misfortune of sharing his surname with a common noun, with the result that Mr. Street, becomes Herr Straße, Monsieur Rue, and Señor Calle, respectively, in German, French and Spanish.
Machine translation is incapable of making the distinction. Only a professionally trained translator has the knowledge and sophistication to do so. Furthermore, a good translator will take it a step further, finding an expression that is not only linguistically but also socially and culturally appropriate while remaining faithful to the meaning of the word or expression in the source language.
A particular risk with the English to Chinese,
Chinese to English language pair
Sentence structure. Structural differences between Chinese and English, such as the different orderings of head nouns and relative clauses, are a fundamental difference between the languages. Comparisons of machine translation systems and how they handle different languages show the English-Chinese language pair to consistently have the poorest results, even poorer than for other difficult language pairs such as Arabic-English. Many of these structural differences are related to the ubiquitous Chinese 的 (DE) construction, used for a wide range of noun modification constructions (both single word and clausal) and other uses. In English, the words, whether they be adjectives, groups of nouns or clauses, can come both before and after the noun, for example:
The actual meaning is:
The actual meaning is: ‘a local middle school
with a bad reputation’
Proper uses for machine translation
In all fairness, there are appropriate uses for machine translation: when you need travel directions in preparing for or during a trip to a foreign country, or you need to get the most general meaning of a document when trying to decide whether it is worth spending the money to have it professionally translated.
But there is no place for machine translation when it comes to promoting your company’s carefully crafted message or protecting its hard-earned reputation.
It is true no matter the language pair, but especially true with translation from English into Chinese or the other way around. Employing a professional language translation service offers a return on investment that can reap benefits many times over. Not only do you gain the peace of mind knowing that your message is going to be well understood in the other language, your customers will notice the difference, too.
From the embarrassing to the deadly, translation mistakes come at a high cost. They can be avoided by using professional translators. Only a professional translator can avoid the cultural clichés, literary references and sports metaphors that do not make sense in other countries. We hope you will take all of this into consideration when planning your entry into China, Taiwan or Hong Kong or into any market where Chinese is the dominant language.
We welcome you to contact us should you wish to discuss this article further or if you have an English to Chinese or Chinese to English translation project that you are contemplating.
Liu Yuanyuan, Director of Operations