Machine Translation vs Human Translation: Which is better?

Leverage the right translation resource for the job for the best outcome everytime.


Do you remember the first time you used Google Translate and how, let's say interesting, the results were? We’ve come a long way!

In fact, entire websites can be translated thanks to the modern advances of machine translation. But, that doesn’t mean we should forget about the incredibly talented linguists that work to bring your brand experience to life.

Depending on your desired goals and intentions with a project, you have two options when it comes to translating your content: machine translation (MT) and human translation.

We are going to break it down by sharing the pros and cons of each alternative so you can make the most informed and beneficial decision for your business. Easy peasy!

Machine Translation vs Human Translation

Machine translation is practically instantaneous and continues to improve by leaps and bounds each day thanks to the use of AI.

MT also has its own milestones for consideration as background. Machine translation began in 1949 and has evolved from a tool to keep tabs on pesky Russian operatives into an accessible means to translate everything from pleasantries to directions. User beware: there is still significant room for MT improvement.

Smartling has shared recommendations for when to use machine translation in this informative webinar, but here are a few fast takeaways:

  • Machine translation hits that sweet spot of cost and speed, offering a really quick way for brands to translate their documents at scale without much overhead. But, that doesn’t mean it's always applicable!
  • Meanwhile, professional, human translation is great for those projects that require extra care and nuance. Talented translators work on your brand’s content to capture the original meaning, and convey that feeling or message essentially in a new body of work.

With the care and expertise of a human translator, you should expect to pay a bit more, but for a higher quality outcome. At the same time, machine translation is great to leverage for high volume, low priorty content, like user reviews, comments or social posts.

You may want to implement machine translation if..

  • You are looking to translate content for a section of your business that is not yet bringing in significant revenue.
  • You are dipping a toe into an expansion or testing a market and are not yet ready for the more complex project of human translation.
  • The content you are looking to translate is not very creative in nature, it is more basic such as guidelines or directions.

You May Want to Implement human translation if..

  • The project prioritizes accuracy over a quick turnover.
  • The idea of being able to communicate with a live human being is alluring and/or important to you.
  • Quality content is your biggest priority (this includes localization and context).

Machine Translation Pros and Cons

As with any decision in business, there are pros and cons. Let’s weigh them!

In Favor of Machine Translation - The Pros: Massive improvements, thanks to Neural Machine Translation (NMT), are being made each and every day. NMT learns how humans speak and uses its own logic to decide the correct translation of a word or phrase. The future is now!🤖

1. Automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues to grow and become integral parts of how translation evolves.

Automated translation leans on AI to tackle more of the 101 and basic, repetitive tasks like assigning jobs, reviewing and revising content and deciding if content is acceptable or not. This saves time in the project process, which is beneficial to the bottom line.

2. Simply put, machine translation costs less.

When you aren’t employing humans to unearth the elements of the more creative messaging you are putting together, your costs stay down. If budget is your #1 priority, MT may just be for you.

Be but weary of translating your most valuable content through free MT services, instead we recommend leveraging some industry standards.

Downsides of Machine Translation - The Cons: But, that doesn't mean that machine translation is always the right choice. There are serveral sceanarios in which a human might be necessary.

1. Automated translation will never be able to fully replace human translators and their ability to investigate.

MT can be sloppy if not paired with the appropriate translation projects, or verified by a human. Human translators can also dig deeper to understand the true meaning of the content, and make informed decisions on how to translate.

2. Machine translation might not be adequate for high priority content.

If you are looking at conversions, or marketing efforts that hold potential for sales, you need to be as contextually clear and accurate as possible. If a prospective customer sees inaccuracies in your copy, it is likely they will not trust your company enough to follow through with a sale.

3. Machines don't consider context.. yet

We have learned about the importance of context in previous blogs. Unfortunately, machine translation is not ideal for picking up on the hypersensitive linguistic subtleties of contextual details.

For example, If you are having content translated that includes words like: run, cut, right/write, etc. there is a huge margin for error.

A human translator leverages tools like visual context and various linguistic assets to adhere to brand standards, translate accurately, and convey the message of the content consistently.

Human Translation Pros and Cons

Human translators may require a higher budget and a little more time, but the results speak for themselves.

In Favor of Human Translation - The Pros: The most significant benefit of human translation is the accuracy of the content they can churn out.

1. Humans are able to pick up on the intricacies of linguistics and can implement their own experiences and gut feelings to do a job well.

They can access and break down a language and can use their creativity to inject excitement into your content. And we all know if your content is compelling, you are more likely to see movement.

2. You can collaborate with professional translators

Unlike MT, you have the ability to hop on the phone or a Skype call with a human translator to discuss the more complex details of a translation project. This means less revisions and less chances of missing the necessary objectives of your projects.

When you go with human translation, you are more likely to see your conversions climb. If your project needs include a high conversion rate, go with human translators.

Downsides of Human Translation - The Cons: The machines might not be taking over just yet, but they do make a strong case for themselves at times.

1. Human translation is more resource intensive

This is a real drawback for some companies. Human translation projects are not as fast to complete as MT, and it is more expensive of a process. If your needs do not require contextual accuracy per se, MT may be more appropriate.

During the process of localization, the morphing of your messaging and applying it to a new and specific demographic, human translators can massage your content to capture the ineffable components so it resonates in a deeper way. Machine translation can’t touch it.

Choosing The Right Translation Method

Smartling is passionate about connecting your brand with customers around the globe.

With both human and machine translation services built into our program, we can help you decide which path best fits your translating needs.

Our translation management systems help companies every day and our team of rockstar translators are eager to help you elevate your messaging.

If you would like to learn more about the translators on our team, be sure to check out our Move the World with Words book!

The Bottom Line

Want our opinion on which method of translation would best serve your needs? Drop us a line and connect with a Smartling language services expert.

We are here to help you move the world with words!

If you want to become a Smartling translator, we are always expanding our team. Let’s chat!

About Laura

Laura Wyant is a freelance digital strategist and writer/editor. She is currently working with start-ups, tech companies, and health and healing spaces. Laura has been contributing to the Smartling blog on topics around cloud translation, digital strategy, and overall creative translation process. When she isn’t working in media, she is working to educate herself on matters such as intersectional women’s health and advancements in technology.