Human vs. Machine Translation

Communication Matters 

Communication is central to how we live and work. Without effective communication, things can fall apart pretty quickly. And when it comes to your business, miscommunication can prove quite costly. Whether you need to share documentation with your in-house teams or marketing material with your customers, how well, how quickly, and how seamlessly you communicate can greatly affect your brand. It is only natural, then, that businesses across industries now invest in translation services to communicate effectively with their linguistically and culturally diverse audience. Many companies, however, aren’t sure whether to invest in human or machine translation (MT) services. While some businesses focus squarely on price as a determining factor and others on turnaround times (TAT), you might also want to consider the quality of the translation. In other words, is quality an important factor in your business communication practices?

Understanding Machine Translation

In its simplest form, machine translation conveys the meaning from a source language to a target language using a computer. But MT is hardly that simple. Without going into great detail, the past few years have witnessed a shift from statistical machine translation (SMT) to neural machine translation (NMT). As a more advanced form of MT, NMT involves neural network technology, a type of artificial intelligence that tries to mimic certain elements of human thinking. However, although this technology is very promising, the machines need to be “trained.” This requires the ongoing collection and processing of millions of pages of training text — yes, millions. In fact, even then, there are no guarantees that the translation will be flawless. After all, we are dealing with machines, and accuracy, therefore, continues to be a challenge. Because of the potential inaccuracy of the translated content, machine translation often requires the work of a professional linguist who will provide you with machine translation post-editing (MTPE) services. Keep in mind, however, that MTPE can take days — or even weeks — to complete, adding considerable time and expense to your project.

Another challenge is MT’s heavy reliance on online multilingual content. But, not all languages offer an abundance of content available on the internet. In fact, there are thousands of languages with modest amounts (if any) of online content, limiting the number of languages MT can offer. Nonetheless, as Intento (a service and technology provider) puts it, the “Machine Translation landscape continues to evolve, both in terms of quality and price… Language coverage is increasing faster than ever.”1  How, then, do companies evaluate whether to invest in human translation or MT?

MT or Human Translation?

This very question has been hotly debated for years both inside and outside the language services industry. Depending on whom you ask, answers will likely vary. However, a recent survey “of over 2,800 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) published by the European Commission revealed nearly 40% of respondents had not used a machine translation tool prior to the study [and] an overwhelming majority of SMEs still preferred human translation for business activities.”2

Data Source: European Commission

However, at the end of the day, these powerful engines are still just that — engines, machines. As Memsource states, “[i]t is only in the past ten years that machine translation has become a viable tool in more widespread use.”3 As such, translation technology still has a long way to go to match the near-exact precision that professional human translation offers. If you find yourself on the fence about whether or not to invest in MT, consider some of the pros and cons we examine below, based on different industry needs.

The Cons of Machine Translation

Life Sciences and Healthcare Requires Precise Translation

Generally speaking, MT would not be an appropriate investment when it comes to the life sciences and healthcare industries. On the life sciences side, instructions for use (IFUs), clinical trial documentation, medical device packaging, labeling, and adverse event reports all need to be translated with extreme precision. Inaccurate, inconsistent translation — or even worse, incomprehensible translation — can lead to potentially dangerous scenarios. The same can be said for the healthcare sector since patients’ lives are often directly affected by poorly translated content. Informed consent, medical records, patient questionnaires, lab results, hospital release forms, and aftercare instructions all need to be as accurately translated as possible to ensure patient safety. Given these potentially dire consequences, most decision-makers opt to invest in human translation.

Translation for Non-profit Organizations Require Specialized Messaging

Nonprofit organizations across the globe work tirelessly to convey impactful messages. In their efforts, nonprofits strive to communicate their unique initiatives to linguistically and culturally diverse audiences. Whether your focus is on humanitarian assistance, social and community welfare services, or educational opportunities, you require specialized language services to drive forward your mission. Since MT lacks the ability to understand the complex rules and nuances in languages — not to mention the potential cultural differences — your translated message risks the sharing of misinformation, ultimately leading to the alienation of your intended audience. When human linguists, however, are at the helm, diverse groups of individuals often feel more understood, and therefore, are more apt to participate.

MT Can Risk the Accuracy of Your eLearning Content 

If your company has a global reach, chances are you are looking to invest in translation services for your eLearning courses. While MT offers a faster and less expensive option to translate your eLearning content, you might be risking the accuracy of the overall messaging while also missing cultural nuances. In order to ensure the message is accurately conveyed, it should also capture the appropriate tone, imagery, and cultural sensitivities required for your diverse audience. In other words, in order for eLearning courses to be a success for all, the content should offer a natural linguistic and cultural flow. This is where professional linguists have the upper hand. Not only do qualified translators understand how to navigate and address the linguistic complexities and cultural sensitivities that might be present in your course’s content, but they likely also offer specialized expertise in your unique industry — something MT just cannot currently offer.

MT Lacks the Ability to Deliver Precise Marketing Messages 

The world has definitely become more globalized. As such, businesses across industries are looking for innovative ways to offer their products and services to a growing number of emerging global markets. In order to ensure a successful business expansion, however, communication plays a key role. With an effective marketing strategy in place, you will not only gain international visibility but will also strengthen trust. But, how do you effectively market your products and services on the global stage? Much like eLearning translation, marketing for a diverse audience goes well beyond simply translating the words on a page. How well you communicate with your potential customers plays a pivotal role in gaining traction in your new marketplace. While language technology has certainly advanced in recent years, it still lacks the ability to deliver your precise marketing message to your diverse audience.

So, where exactly does MT fit in?

There are many scenarios in which machine translation can absolutely be the right fit for your translation needs. In each of these scenarios below, however, you’ll notice a recurring theme — Quality is not a priority.

The Pros of Machine Translation

Market Research

Sometimes, companies need to conduct research for internal use. This could be gathering information on competitors or studying industry trends. If you venture out on a fact-finding mission but the information you encounter is in a different language, MT might be the most cost-effective and efficient way for you to translate the content. Even if the translation isn’t 100% accurate, you’ll at least get a general understanding of the content you have gathered.

Repetitive Content

For documentation containing simple text or clearly defined terminology, MT will be well suited for your translation needs. Product manuals, for instance, repair manuals, or user guides can often be highly repetitive in nature, making MT the perfect choice for translation.

High Volume

When companies require the fast turnaround of a sizable amount of content, MT can greatly outpace human linguists. The caveat, however, is often the lower quality of translation. If translation accuracy isn’t a priority, then MT is a perfect choice.

Perhaps, the most important point to remember, however, is that this doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. When you partner with a language services provider (LSP) that focuses on high-quality human translation, chances are that the same LSP has also invested in industry-leading language technology to enhance the language experience. Welcome to Ingenuiti.


Sparking Performance. Igniting Communication

When you partner with Ingenuiti for your translation needs, you are investing in the best of both worlds — a human with the ability to discern context and meaning alongside state-of-the-art language technology. With over 40 years of experience in the translation industry, Ingenuiti has truly mastered the art of communication across industries. We offer our clients a robust network of thousands of vetted, tested, and proven linguists who specialize in hundreds of language combinations. And, no. We certainly do not shy away from language technology. We embrace it.

At Ingenuiti, we hold the language services industry to the highest of standards. Although in our estimation, translation technology still lags behind the high level of translation quality our professional linguists provide, we continue to closely monitor MT advancements. Once we feel MT has reached the same level of quality standards that we offer, we won’t hesitate to move forward. Until then, however, Ingenuiti will continue to use the most advanced computer-assisted tools (CAT) tools and translation memories (TMs) in the industry and ensure the highest translation quality of your content. In fact, we deliver fast, consistent, accurate translation, every time.

Reach out today to discuss your next translation project with us.


1 Savenkov, Konstantin. “📊 State of the Machine Translation (June 2019).” Medium, Intento, 19 June 2019,

2 SARNO, Ivano. “Human or Machine Translation? Survey Reveals EU SME Preferences by Use Case – Knowledge Centre on Interpretation European Commission.” Knowledge Centre on Interpretation – European Commission, 26 June 2020,
3 “Machine Translation (MT): Everything You Need to Know.” Memsource Website