The dangers and risks of using machine translation

Business managers and owners can do more than damage their China business when using machine translation for their translation from English to Chinese

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:

The sentence
‘you are responsible for your own actions’

Here is Google’s English to Chinese translation…

Now let’s take the Chinese and translate it back to English:|en|%E
You responsible for their own behavior

This simple, straight-forward sentence works perfectly in French:|fr|you%2
vous êtes responsable de vos propres actions

Here is the French translated back to English:…
you are responsible for your own actions

It also translates correctly into Spanish:|es
usted es responsable de sus propias acciones

Here is the Spanish translated back into English:|e
You are responsible for your own actions

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: translating 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 ( 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:

Babel Fish:

Microsoft Translator:

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 completely different writing systems. A Chinese restaurant wanted an English translation of their name. Here is the result:

It’s pretty easy to guess what happened. In the process of creating the sign, the restaurant tried to translate the Chinese name of the restaurant into English using machine translation software. For whatever reason, the software malfunctioned and provided the error message, “Translation server error.” As the user had no knowledge of English, he or she took the error message to be the correct English and that is what went up onto the sign. As you can see, the risk can be egregiously high for the business executive (or, in this case, restaurant owner) who has no knowledge of the other language and, hence, no reference point for a comparison. These types of errors are extremely common. When someone opts to use a machine translation system, it’s usually because he or she wishes to communicate with someone with whom they do not share a language in common. They do not have anybody in their circle who knows both languages and could act as a go-between or at least a proofreader. As a result, they are in no position to understand the output and have no other choice other than to trust the translation technology.

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.

When the risk can be life-threatening: machine translation and healthcare

Employing machine translation is risky in any industry or field, but presents particular dangers in medicine

The International Medical Interpreters Association, a highly respected group, couldn’t have been any more blunt in their warning: the section on automated translation in the association’s Guide on Medical Translation, published in 2009, is entitled “The perils of machine translation.” The association “strongly cautions” medical staff against using machine translation services.

The guide cites an example in Spanish of how Yahoo’s Babel Fish, one of the four most popular online machine translators, handled a critical clinical description:

– English: Women with this disorder appear to exhibit increased humoral immune responsiveness and macrophage activation while showing diminished cell-mediated immunity with decreased T-cell and natural killer cell responsiveness.
– Spanish: Las mujeres con este desorden aparecen exhibir la activación inmune humoral creciente de la sensibilidad y del macrófago mientras que la demostración disminuyó inmunidad transmitida por células con sensibilidad del T-cell disminuido y de la célula de asesino natural.

The guide then explains the three major errors in the translation of this single sentence:

“In the example above, the word ‘disorder’ became disorder in the sense of confusion or mess in the target language, but in the medical context, a proper equivalent exists and it is ‘trastorno.’ The verb ‘appear’ was translated not in the sense of appearance, but in the sense of turning up. ‘Natural killer cell’ became ‘the cell of the natural assassin.’ Those are just three errors among the many found in this machine-translated passage.”

The above was excerpted from Sales May Be Lost In Translation by Jiri Stejskal, a book that examines the pitfalls of poor translation, as well as giving many examples – many of which are humorous, but not necessarily suitable for a discussion in mixed company!

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:
– make up a missed class
– make up a story
– apply make-up to one’s face

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.

Wide differences in sentence structure

A particular risk with the English to Chinese, Chinese to English language pair

Besides the fact that English and Chinese come from completely unrelated language groups, with English a member of the Indo-European group of languages that spreads from India across Europe and Chinese belonging to the Sino-Tibetan family, there are essential structural and grammatical differences that prove especially challenging to machine translation systems.

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 dog’s paw
The blue coat

The paw of the dog
The room, which was on the left side of the hallway,…

In Chinese, the modifying elements virtually always come before noun, the length of the modifying component can be quite long, and there is a wide range of noun modification constructions. It is nearly impossible for machine translation to make this distinction beyond very short modifiers, and, even when the machine translation software understands the concept, it is incapable of deciding where the set of modifying elements begins. Here is an example:

澳洲 北韩 邦交 少数 国家 之一。
Aozhou shi yu Beihan you bangjiao DE shaoshu guojia zhiyi.
Australia is with North Korea have diplomatic relations that few countries one of.

The actual meaning is:
Australia is one of the few countries that have diplomatic relations with North Korea.

当地 一所 名声不佳  的 中学
local a bad reputation DE middle school

The actual meaning is: ‘a local middle school with a bad reputation’

Here is how three different machine translation systems handled the sentence:

System 1: ‘a bad reputation of the local secondary school’
System 2: ‘the local a bad reputation secondary school’
System 3: ‘a local stigma secondary schools’

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.