Not necessary or not required? When public health is at stake, Google Translate isn’t enough. - Multilingual Connections

Not necessary or not required? When public health is at stake, Google Translate isn’t enough.

covid 19 vaccine
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Is the COVID-19 vaccine not necessary or not required? It depends on who – or what – is doing the translation.

I’ve written before about how Google Translate can be great – sometimes.  It can be great (though not perfect!) when I’m messaging my friend in Israel. It can be great when you’re an American journalist and a French UN peacekeeper falling in love. And it can be great when you’re Jimmy Fallon entertaining viewers on The Tonight Show.

Sometimes great isn’t the standard, and instead good enough will do. In that case, Google Translate or other machine translation engines are exactly that: good enough. When translating content for internal and informational purposes, translating user-generated content, translating high volumes of content that would otherwise be inaccessible to multilingual audiences…it’s quick, it’s cheap, and it can get the job done when expectations of output are set accordingly.

However, machine translation is still far from perfect. Machines don’t understand context, nuance, humor, and culturally-specific references. And even when the original content seems to be straightforward, it can still miss the mark. That’s why when it matters, humans matter. When going the route of machine translation, a trained linguist to conduct MTPE (machine translation post editing) is a crucial step in ensuring both an accurate translation and natural-sounding translation.

Take for example the Virginia Department of Health’s COVID-19 FAQ web page, where a Google Translate plugin informed Spanish speakers that the lifesaving vaccine was “not necessary”, rather than “not required” as specified in the original English. An experienced post editor would look at that output and check it against the original, look more closely at the context, do additional research and ask clarifying questions if necessary. A human can do a gut check. A machine? Not yet.

Fortunately, the FAQ page has now been updated:

The translation now says: “La vacuna no será obligatoria para los virginianos y no existen sanciones legales por rechazarla, pero le recomendamos que la obtenga una vez que esté disponible” — “The vaccine will not be mandatory for Virginians and there are no legal penalties for refusing it, but we recommend that you get it once it is available.”

The difference between a bad translation and a good translation is not always a difference between life and death, but when there’s a chance that it might be – or when the success of your business is at stake – don’t forget the human.

Interested in learning more about MTPE? Reach out to us to discuss.

Want to see more like this?

We periodically share news and updates about language and our business. We’ll never share your contact information with anyone.