As online translators are getting better, it makes a lot of sense to use these free-of-charge services to translate your private correspondence—whether e-mails or Skype—rather than professional translation services. Obviously, machine translation is not always appropriate, but my point is that it is quite often sufficient for this type of text.
What kind of correspondence can you translate this way?
- Communication through dating services in the attempt to find a loved one in a foreign country;
- Writing to a friend casually;
- Other informal exchanges where both parties do not expect perfect translation.
There is no doubt that in all of these examples, you can benefit from professional translation. A text translated by a professional will produce a better impression and protect you from falling into the trap of cultural differences. But before you choose professional translation, ask yourself:
- How critical is quality for private correspondence like mine?
- Do I accept the fact that a professional translator will charge hefty fees, even if this translation does not produce the results I want?
- Am I willing to wait a day or two until my translation is ready?
- Do I mind another person reading my private correspondence?
Until recently, machine translations were not just difficult to understand—they were often outright ridiculous. Online machine translations could distort your message to the point where it made no sense and made you look ridiculous. However, machine translation is getting better. Although not perfect by a long shot, it usually conveys information well. A certain level of errors is acceptable in personal correspondence anyway: after all, errors and misunderstandings are frequent even when no translation is involved. And if something is unclear to the other party, he or she can easily double-check with you.
Quality aside, machine translation has two distinct advantages: it is free and instantaneous. With private correspondence, where the speed of exchange can be more important than error-free communication, these advantages may outweigh the drop in quality.
Last, but not least, using an online translation service reduces privacy issues. If you are uncomfortable with a human translator reading your personal e-mails, using an anonymous service, such as Google Translate, might be just what you need.
Suggestions for better translations
To make the best use of machine translation, follow these best practices:
- Keep your text as simple as possible. The shorter your sentences, the easier they are to translate. Bear in mind that too short sentences can be ambiguous, though.
- Avoid idioms, e.g., “to put a stake in the ground,” because machine translation might translate them literally—it cannot tell whether you are using them literally or metaphorically.
- Avoid ambiguity. For example, avoid homonyms, i.e., words that sound the same, but have different meanings. Example: “bar” means both “a retail establishment that serves alcoholic beverages” and “ a unit of measuring pressure.”
- When it comes to politeness, err on the side of caution. Something that sounds casual in your culture may appear impolite in another, so be neutral.
Remember that these suggestions generally do not apply to formal communication! Using machine translation for such purposes will be detrimental both to your goal and reputation. For this reason, formal e-mails require professional translation. Examples include:
- Proposals to prospective clients
- Applying for a job
- Applying for study.
With the recent advancements of online translation services, they are a viable alternative to professional translation, because they are quick, free-of-charge, and in theory anonymous. Although machine translation is not error-free (and will likely continue to be this way in the foreseeable future), it produces meaningful results that are quite sufficient for simple, informal exchanges. By keeping your text simple and culturally neutral, you can achieve good results without paying through the teeth.