When Free Translation Online
Does More Harm Than Good


The first providers of free translation online appeared more than a decade ago. In 1994, CompuServe and Systran signed an agreement to make machine translation available online to CompuServe’s subscribers. This service was used for translations between English, French, German and Spanish.

Later on, in 1997, AltaVista in partnership with Systran offered the machine translation service Babel Fish, which was provided free of charge to any web user. Initially, the language pairs covered were English into/from French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. Over the past decade, new Internet machine translation portals have sprung up offering translation in a great number of language pairs. However, Babel Fish has remained one of the best-known and most popular free online automated translation services.

On the one hand, the availability of these free services has shaped the development of the Internet and helped in overcoming language barriers. In the absence of other free tools to deal with a language barrier, free translation online, despite its often poor quality, still facilitates communication between web users that speak different languages. On the other hand, the widespread use of free online translation services for purposes for which they are not designed has given rise to a number of new problems.

  • Probably the most harmless of all bizarre ways in which some people use free translation online is using online machine translation as an entertainment tool for performing back-and-forth translations or translations of idiomatic expressions, proverbs, etc.

    In fact, using back-and-forth translation, whereby a sentence or text is translated into the target language and then back into the source language, is a bad way to judge the quality of machine translation. When asked Why does the translation not make sense if I translate my text into another language and then back again?, Free Translation.com answered that in translation of a text into another language some words can be translated in a number of ways; and when this text is translated back into the original language these words may be translated differently. So the meaning may be distorted.

    Machine translation has its limitations and is unable to convey nuances of complex human language. Translation of idiomatic expressions, proverbs, figurative language and long sentences with complex grammar is a challenge even for human translators. So we should not be surprised that free online machine translation gives poor translation output for many kinds of texts.

  • Unlike back-and-forth translations, automated spam translations are a serious problem. Bulk mailers use free online automated translation services more and more intensively to create junk email in many languages. As a result, volumes of spam in email traffic increase making the spam disaster even more unbearable. According to the 2009 Annual Security Report of MessageLabs Intelligence, "spammers were using automated language translation tools in significant volumes" and "spam levels in countries where English was not the primary language had increased significantly."
  • There is a tendency among language students/language learners to use free translation online to complete their translation assignments. This quick way to do translation homework, however, will not help to learn the language quicker. If you do not invest enough time and effort, you will not learn the foreign language.
  • Another example of the improper use of free online translation services is an attempt to use them as bilingual online dictionaries and translate single words taken out of context. This suggests that users of online machine translation portals are unaware of the nature and limitations of service that machine translation software is designed to provide. Actually, it is designed to provide target-language output for any source-language input without any additional lexicographic information.

Thus, any single word may have many different translations that depend on context, but you will receive only one supposed target-language equivalent. On contrary, online bilingual dictionaries are the most appropriate tools to translate single words and isolated phrases because such dictionaries give detailed lexicographic and semantic information with examples that help to understand the meaning and correct use of words and phrases.

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_____________________________________________________________________ Website owner: Irina Lychak, self-employed freelance linguist, Russian translator, Ukrainian translator, Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine


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