Machine Translation vs. Machine Translation Plus Post-Editing

What's the difference, and which do you need?

Last Updated: November 12, 2019 1:50AM

Any business with an international presence needs top-notch translation services. To make sure you’re communicating effectively with the global market, you need to know that you have accurate, high-quality translations for everything from your website to the digital chatbots that provide customer service.

In a world that continues to churn out more and more content, how can you translate both efficiently and effectively? As machine translation technology continues to improve, your company could find itself facing a number of options–and trying to juggle a trifold need for speed, quality, and cost-effectiveness.

Machine Translation vs. Human Translation

Machine translation enables lightning-speed translations, but they may lack the nuanced quality and professional assurance of a human translation. Machine translation with post-editing by a human translator, while not quite as fast as raw machine translation, can give your copy a more polished and professional feel.

How do you know when you can get away with pure machine translation, and when machine translation plus post-editing is your best option? Read on for our tips.

Machine Translation

Machine translation (MT) is the automated translation of source material into another language. MT has greatly improved in speed and accuracy in recent years due to advances in software and hardware alike.

It’s now possible to “teach” computers to solve language translation tasks in various ways, from building statistical models to neural machine translation (NMT) systems that map the ways words commonly associate with each other.

Machine translation engines can process millions of words per hour and produce reasonably accurate, usable translations in nearly any language. In short, the robots are getting really smart, really fast.

However, MT translations, while intelligible and improving, still feel like their name: that is, machine translations. Even as machine translation systems get smarter, they still have a long way to go before they can match human understanding of nuance, tone, sarcasm, humor, meaning–the list goes on. If you rely solely on machine translations, the robotic nature of its tone could end up compromising your message. That, in turn, could suggest to customers that the service you provide is low-quality or unreliable.

Translations of public-facing content should always read naturally and fit seamlessly into the cultural context of your target market. If you want to produce high-quality, localized content, it’s often worth paying extra for native speakers to review your translation. That’s where post-editing comes in.

Machine Translation Plus Post-Editing

Machine translation plus post-editing is a hybrid of MT and traditional, human translation. As its name suggests, post-editing follows the MT process.

First, software produces an initial translation of the material, making short work of bulk translation tasks. Once this initial translation is complete, human translators take the text and edit it for accuracy, clarity, flow, and local resonance. In short, they check the machine’s work and infuse the copy with the translation quality only a human can provide.

This human touch brings a level of nuance that machines can’t match. This is especially important when translation projects contain content that’s highly technical, deals with sensitive cultural issues, features jokes or wordplay, or captures an important particular tone.

For clients, the benefits are twofold. This method couples the unparalleled speed of MT with the attention and sensitivity of a human translator.

Most professional translators can work more quickly as editors than as from-scratch translators. Because the initial MT translation saves translators hours of work, MT with post-editing is one of the quickest (and most affordable) ways to get high-quality results.

Which Type of Translation Is Right for You?

Now that you understand the basics of each type of translation, how should you choose between them? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each:

Machine Translation: Pros

  • Unparalleled speed
  • The most cost-effective option

Machine Translation: Cons

  • Uneven quality depending on the complexity of the task
  • Difficult to maintain brand voice
  • Potentially inorganic or unnatural feel

Machine Translation Plus Post-Editing: Pros

  • More accurate than machine translation alone
  • Improved flow and clarity
  • Greater cultural sensitivity
  • More fluent use of slang and local terminology
  • 30% faster than human translation without machine translation

Machine Translation Plus Post-Editing: Cons

  • Slower than machine translation
  • More expensive than machine translation alone

Ultimately, choosing between machine translation and machine translation with post-editing depends on the task at hand, as well as on your budget, editorial calendar, and desired results. This can be a complex calculation, and the weight you attach to each variable will be unique to your business–and may change over time. Consider these use cases to help you decide:

When to Use Machine Translation

  • When you need to publish a piece of content as quickly as possible
  • If you have a limited budget
  • In times when a rough translation will suffice (e.g., for low-priority internal messages)
  • When you have very large volumes of text to translate

Machine translation is often appropriate for databases, webchats, and user-generated content like crowd-sourced Q&As, as well as other items where exact translations aren’t necessary or feasible.

When to Use Machine Translation Plus Post-Editing

  • When you need a culturally sensitive or relevant translation
  • If the text requires technical knowledge (such as medicine, law, mechanics, etc.)
  • When you are translating public-facing materials (advertisements, product descriptions, etc.)

Good candidates for MT plus post-editing include blog posts, packaging inserts, instruction manuals, and website content.

We typically do not recommend that clients use raw MT for public-facing materials, especially when it’s important for those materials to reflect your brand across global markets. It’s best to leave creative copy like slogans and headlines to human translators.

The Takeaway

Your business translation needs are unique, and it’s worth taking the time to study your options in order to come up with a plan that’s right for your budget and marketing goals. Lionbridge machine translation and post-editing services allow us to provide the most tailored approach to meet our clients’ needs while maximizing quality and minimizing turnaround time.

We’ve developed tools that can match you with the ideal translator or editor based on your target language and subject matter, so you know you’re getting the best possible copy–and customer experience–no matter where in the world you plan to publish it.

Ready to start your next translation project? Reach out to us to get started.

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