Localization strategy

Why Human Translation Is Still Essential for Localization

There may come a day when machine translation is made sufficiently powerful to support business goals, but here’s why robots won’t take over just yet.
Localization strategy blog category featured image | Phrase

At some point in this century, there is a good chance that we'll witness a phenomenon called “technological singularity” – the moment when artificial intelligence (AI) will meet and then surpass human intelligence. This might lead to a potential “run-away effect” in which super-intelligent AI will either biologically enhance us in unfathomable ways, become a boundless source of information and miraculous change, or destroy us completely in a "fiery" inferno. However, until such a time comes to pass, you’re still going to have to rely on good old human translation for multilingual communication. Here's why.

Companies in the translation and localization industry are moving forward with machine translation at a rapid rate in order to improve the speed with which users can understand their content and help cut out the middle man - that aforementioned human translator. A world in which we need only speak into a little handheld device like something straight out of Star Trek, and be understood in any language we desire, seems appealing to many people, and who can really argue with that simplicity?

Companies such as Skype are actually working towards making that dream a reality and have been met with some minor success. Emphasis on minor… In order to grasp why human translation is still so essential, we really need to keep in mind the concept that translation is not 100% synonymous with communication. There is an enormous difference between communicating meaning the way it is intended and simply converting words from one language to another.

So Is Machine Translation All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Nope, sorry. Not even close. At least not right now.

If your company is relying on machine translation such as Google Translate or other, similar software to localize apps or websites, you’re doing it wrong!

There are certain things that, despite all of these advances in AI and computing capabilities, cannot currently be adequately replicated by a machine.

Authentic human translation is still essential in localization because part of your goal as a company is to reach out and harness the culture of the people in your target market.

This can include slang, idioms and other phraseological constructs used to best convey your messages in a way that reaches your audience on a more personal and familiar level.

A computer cannot do that and if you ignore my advice and try any way you may not like the results.

There may - and probably will - come a day when machine translation is made sufficiently powerful for handling these things. That is not this day.

One need only run a quick Google image search for “translation fails” to see how individuals, companies and even governments have been met with embarrassment and ridicule due to inaccurate machine translation.

Why Is Human Touch Necessary?

Language is complicated stuff.

It forms the cornerstone of culture and society, it is the basis of human communication and contains the map that illustrates where people have been and where they are headed in the future.

Some linguists and anthropologists believe that it is one contributing factor in allowing early humans tens of thousands of years ago to band together insufficient enough groups to venture out of Africa and go on to populate the planet.

Language is arguably responsible for everything that society is. It ties us together and is one of the primary things that separates us from other species.

But this isn’t about language being some sort of sacred cultural entity, it’s about practicality and making sure that you’re doing things right with your localization and being heard, the right way, the first time, by your target audience.

Your website and software need a human touch because a machine cannot get inside the minds and hearts of another person and trigger the intimate bond that only another human can create. It cannot properly sell your product.

As a classic example; Google Translate - while better than it was 5 years ago - doesn’t understand your company’s catchphrase, slogan or jingle. It can’t comprehend the ramifications of an idiom or how it might translate incomprehensibly or worse - inappropriately - into another language.

It doesn’t know anything about anyone’s culture or history and is thus entirely incapable of understanding context or subliminal references.

Humor used in marketing may fall flat on its face if not prepared properly in such a way that will resonate successfully within a given market.

Machine translations can often come across as rough or impersonal. They sound like machine translations and this can be bad for branding and for your reputation.

As everyone who has ever carried on a button-pressing conversation with an automated messaging system during a customer service call can attest - machines are annoying and as a company looking to branch into a new market, you need to put your best foot forward.

If you let a machine do this for you, your company becomes a robot.

Translation Tools, Such As GT, Are Fine In Certain Circumstances

For the purpose of translating individual words here and there, machine translation is fine. If you need to know the Albanian term for “mollusk” (hint: it’s gocë deti) you’re all set. If you just need to get the gist of a sentence or headline you saw in an article, it’s fine.

But if your goal is professional quality software translation for business or marketing purposes and you’re working on localizing your brand for a new market, pure machine translation is the last thing you want and if you go down that route you might as well hire a parrot.

A trained human translator is typically well versed and specialized in his or her field.

Often such experts are native speakers or have at least spent a good portion of their lives closely acquainting themselves with the human nuances of a language and culture.

Someday this may change, but for now, there is no machine that can fully translate professional quality content, reliably, for localization purposes.

Poor Translations Are a Red Flag to Potential Customers

I know that when I encounter bad translations on a website or advertisement I am immediately alerted to the quality and care of the company. I’m personally far less likely to buy your products or read your content if it exhibits frequent errors, is boring, or otherwise robotic.

And believe me, I can tell, and I’m willing to bet that your customers can too.

Your company may be perfectly capable, professional and well worth my dime but the moment I start to see significant grammatical errors or broken syntax I head for the “back” button, likely never to return.


Some day, in the perhaps not-so-distant future, machine translations may reach a turning point. Perhaps AI will one day come to meet or exceed human capabilities. Perhaps it will learn to appreciate the nuances of human phraseology, to appreciate the history, humor and culture of a given group of people.

Maybe our robot overlords won’t destroy us all.

But today that is not the case and if you rely on such things, an android uprising is going to be the least of your concerns. Your localization attempts could fall horrendously short of their goal and you could undermine your very purpose.

Luckily for you, Phrase is perfectly suited to help you with real translations by real translators. It can be used either to facilitate your internationalization needs as a tool for your existing translators or it can be used to help you order professional translations from a third party.

You can check out our free trial right now by clicking right here.

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot, there’s money on the line!

Don’t let yourself become a meme. You won’t find it nearly as funny as the rest of us will.

Don’t use machine translation to localize your software, app or website for a global market.

If you want to find out more about this topic, here are some further reads you should check out:

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