Machine translation errors

Although computers have stolen the spotlight from humans in many sectors, machine translation is not a threat to professional translators.

Today, we all have access to an automatic translator, and it is true that we are often tempted to use this tool. But only a couple of uses are enough to realize that these tools are not always effective. This is because they provide literal translations in their raw state, without taking into account cultural and contextual factors, which is essential to any professional translation.  This is the main reason that automatic translations often make mistakes.

Although technology might have stolen the spotlight from humans in many sectors, these tools aren’t a threat to professional translators. Here are the main reasons why.

The type of document

Firstly, translation tools are very general. The reason is simple: they’re supposed to be useful with any type of document. This is where the worst enemy of machine translation tools comes in: polysemy. You will find below a small example that should make you smile, where the computer obviously did not understand that the word “advocat” does not have the same meaning in a legal context as it does in a culinary context.



Translation model

Another flaw of translation tools lies in the translation model. These tools compare numerous collections of texts and draw translation rules from them. Despite these rules, for each new translation, the professional translator is faced with new issues which only they alone can solve by making choices. These choices cannot be made by the software.

Some examples of machine translation errors




Here, the software has translated a common name for a piece of clothing into a trademark.




Here, polysemy has led to a computer error. The verb “sauter” in French can be translated as to jump, or to skip in English, depending on the context. Unluckily for these far-from-perfect tools, the verb “sauter” was used incorrectly. It should have been used to mean “skip” in order to conserve the original meaning of the sentence..

We continue our series of errors with examples below. How can we forget the publication of Benyamin Netanyahou who had the opportunity to meet “François Pays-Bas”. Here, the automatic translation tool suggested by a famous social network gave rise to a particularly amusing result in French.




One more for the road? In January 2012, the Ministry of Defense site of a country in Southeast Asia published an article on the clothing of its officials. According to these recommendations, they were not to wear “eye-catching” clothing, but “mongoose fighting” uniforms were permitted. What does this even mean? The Department quickly removed these translations, putting the blame for this blunder on a famous machine translation company.

In addition, in a medical or legal context, a bad translation could have serious consequences.

In conclusion, always be cautious of this type of tool. They can be useful in some cases, but their limits must never be overlooked. Our advice is to always use professional translation services.

Translation into English: Chloe Findlay

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This article has been written by Pauline

After studying translation and communication in Paris, Pauline travelled a lot and decided to settle down in Buenos Aires to do an internship at Cultures Connection.