The Bad, The So-So, and the Excellent

How Good Is Machine Translation?

Enemies and "Faux Amis"

The Bad, The So-So, and the Excellent

We all know what a poor translation is-one that totally distorts the meaning of the original text or violates the grammatical rules of the target language. The difference between a so-so translation and an expert one, however, is more subtle. Expert translations are indistinguishable from text written by native specialists in the subject matter, who are at the same time skilled writers. A rare combination indeed! The examples below are taken from actual translations handled by sparkton.

Original Text

The Bad

The So-So

The Excellent

Die arithmetische Herleitung des Messsignals gem?? der Gleichung (1) wird vorzugsweise mit Hilfe von entsprechenden analogen Bauelementen f¨¹r die auszuf¨¹hrenden arithmetischen Operationen durchgef¨¹hrt. The arithmetic derivation of the measuring signal according to Equation (1) is preferably performed with the help of the similar corresponding components for the arithmetic operations to be performed. The arithmetic derivation of the measuring signal according to Equation (1) is preferably performed with the help of the corresponding analog components for the arithmetic operations to be performed. The measuring signal is computed according to Equation (1) preferably using analog units for the corresponding arithmetic operations.
Note: The red-background translation fails to distinguish between the common meaning of the German word "analog" (similar) and its technical meaning (analog, i.e., opposite of "digital"). The green-background translation streamlines the somewhat verbose original with an idiomatic and technically correct translation.

An Sprach- und Bild¨¹bertragung einerseits bzw. Daten¨¹bertragung anderseits werden unterschiedliche Anforderungen in Bezug auf die einzuhaltende ?bertragungsqualit?t gestellt.

On language and image transmission on the one hand, respectively data transmission on the other hand, different requirements are set regarding the transmission quality to be observed.

Different requirements are set for voice and video transmission on the one hand and data transmission on the other hand regarding the transmission quality to be observed.

The quality requirements for voice and video transmission are different from those that apply to data transmission.

Note: The red-background translation uses ungrammatical English. The yellow-background translation is grammatically and technically correct, but the English is awkward.

How Good Is Machine Translation?

When the first electronic computers appeared in the 1940s, long before the first word processing, spreadsheet, or database programs, military information specialists made an attempt to use those electronic behemoths for translating intelligence information from the Soviet Union. The results were disappointing. Computer hardware and software have since become hundreds of thousands of times faster and more powerful. So, are computers about to displace humans and take over language translation? You be the judge- the sample below is the actual translation, including unedited punctuation, of the first sentence of an Italian web page, performed by the state-of-the art machine translation software Babelfish, which can be accessed via the AltaVista search engine. A (fairly literal) human translation is attached for comparison.

Italian Original

Machine Translation

Human Translation

Bisogna procedere coi piedi di piombo quando si scrive (e si legge) di biblioteche "elettroniche", "digitali" o "virtuali", termini che si sprecano, di questi tempi, anche nelle riviste e nei programmi televisivi pi¨² divulgativi, senza che sia sempre chiaro a chi legge (e talvolta nemmeno a chi scrive) a cosa ci si stia effettivamente riferendo.

It must proceed with the lead feet when law) of "electronic " libraries, " " virtual " digitalises " is written (and or, terms that are wasted, of these times, also in the reviews and the television programs more divulgativi, without that is always clearly to who law (and sometimes to who does not write) to what is effectively reporting to us.

Extreme caution must be used when writing (and reading) about "electronic," "digital," or "virtual" libraries, these terms being liberally used today even in the most popular magazines and TV programs, while it is not always clear to the reader (and sometimes not even to the author) what is actually being discussed.

Enemies and "Faux Amis"

Anyone can translate! You just look up the words in the dictionary and replace those written in language X with their equivalents in language Y. Well, not quite. Aside from the differences in grammar, word order, and idioms, relatively few words have one-to-one equivalents in two different languages. Some have a great number of possible translations, few of which are interchangeable. Knowing which one to use in a given context requires thorough understanding of the source text, mastery of the target language, in addition to a great deal of experience. The examples below are dictionary definitions of common, mostly technical, terms which one would expect to have precisely defined unique meanings in each language.




plant, attachment, system, equipment, feed, rest, bearing, arrangement, cramp, landslide, lay, etc.


pull, draw, draft, air hole, train, traction, register, stop, flue, pass, block, cords, length of chain, groove, tack, stroke, ply, etc.

And if this list gives you the impression that only German is guilty of using the same word for widely different concepts, look at the following examples:




rel¨¨vement, gisement, coussinet, palier, support, orientation, appui, etc.


d¨¦tendeur, tiroir, soupape, clapet, robinet, lampe, volet, valve, etc.




medida, galga, patr¨®n, indicador, calibre, calado, man¨®metro, medir, estimar, etc.


juego, conjunto, ajustar, endurecer, asentar, poner, alinear, componer, escena, aparato, etc.

Add to this combinations such as honeycomb (in the sense of a highly porous casting), the translation of which in German, schweizer K?se (literally "Swiss cheese"), contains neither the equivalent of honey nor that of comb, or hourglass, which literally translates as "sand clock" (Sanduhr).

Do you sometimes find the information given by the dictionaries confusing? See what happens if you think you know a foreign word because it looks and/or sounds like one in your own language.

In the following examples each German word is followed by its actual English meaning in parentheses.

Probe (sample), Kontrolle (check), aktuell (current), Direktor (manager), Hub (stroke), Brand (fire), Art (type), Stern (star), Kind (child), bald (soon), fast (almost), hell (bright), Fall (case), links (on the left), locker (loose), arm (poor), etc.

Even in similar languages, words that look and/or sound alike don't always have the same meaning. For example, carta means "letter" in Spanish and Portuguese, but "paper" in Italian; oficina means "office" in Spanish, but "workshop" in Portuguese; sobre means "sober" in French, "above" in Portuguese and Spanish, but in Spanish it also means "envelope."

These faux amis ("false friends") can spell  d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r  in a translation. Imagine a sales brochure proclaiming the "uncompromising quality" of your product being translated into Spanish as "calidad sin compromiso" (quality without commitment)? Or a French business letter containing the phrase "Nous vous demandons ..." (we ask you to...) translated as "We demand that you..."?

Translation is a science and an art. The translation of texts that may affect the image and the success of your business should only be entrusted to experienced professional translators. At sparkton your text is translated by experts, checked for accuracy, consistency and style, and delivered to you when you need it in the form you need it.