ULG's Language Services Blog

Which Translation Method Should You Use? A Guide Based on Content Type

Let’s examine a hypothetical: You’re creating a global branding scheme for a new product. You need to create foreign language content in order for your materials to resonate in local markets. How do you go about translating your materials? Do you use Machine Translation (MT)? Do you hire professional linguists?

There are several different ways to localize multilingual content, each having their own benefits and downfalls depending on the situation.

With certain documents, it might be necessary to have a subject matter linguist thoroughly examine your copy. With others, it may suffice to have an in-country copywriter do the heavy lifting. Sometimes, a raw MT will do.

Below we’ve compiled a “cheat sheet” that outlines when different modes of translation should be used based on content.

Translation Methods

First, let’s examine the different types of translation.

Professional, Human Translation: Using a trained linguist, ideally someone with a strong knowledge of the subject matter he or she is translating, is the language industry’s tried and true method. Human linguists don’t risk the translation errors brought on by MT.

Machine Translation: A machine translator is a quick and easy way to get the “gist” of a document, but shouldn’t be used for materials that will be published. MT is cheaper than human translation, but it’s lack of accuracy can lead to problems.

Machine Translation with Post Editing: Using a human translator to post edit a machine-translated text provides a more accurate rendering of foreign language documents that doesn’t require as much bandwidth as standard human translation. PEMT (Post Editing Machine Translation) provides a better translation than MT and is faster than professional human translation.

Human Translation + Revision: Using a professional translator to decipher your documents before having the same materials reviewed again by another linguist will produce the most accurate results. Using two pros to translate your copy is your best bet. However, the method is more expensive.

Transcreation: Transcreation refers to adapting a source message from its original context in order for it to resonate in different regions and cultures. While translation is usually a word-for-word rendering of a text, transcreation focuses more on delivering the same emotion or message as the original copy. For example, marketing agencies might use transcreation to recreate idioms that don’t translate verbatim.


Breaking It Down: Choosing a Method Depending on Content Type

  • Technical Documentation – Technical documentation (user manuals, technical instructions, etc.) usually contain simple language and lack nuance and/or metaphor. For this reason, MT or PEMT is ideal. However, if the content you’re working with calls for extreme accuracy, it’s a safer bet to go with professional human translation.
  • Marketing/Promotional Materials – Getting your message out accurately to company stakeholders and clients is important for any business. And MT isn’t built to deal with fancy copy that’s filled with marcom flair. Use human translation, and, if you’re able, human translation plus revision. Better safe than sorry. Another option is transcreation; if you’re dealing with idioms or metaphors, this method will suit you well.
  • Internal Communications -- Internal communications like emails, memos or business correspondences can usually be translated with MT since they won’t be seen by anyone aside from stakeholders and members of a certain company. PEMT is a good idea for materials that are more formal.
  • Medical Documents – Accuracy and preciseness is important in the medical field. Medical documents should be handled by translators with extensive experience in the industry for this reason. However, due to the technical nature of these documents, MT might be feasible in some instances. And using translation glossaries and memories will help speed up these translations.
  • Digital Content – Web and mobile content is usually at least partially promotional in nature. For this reason, it’s best to utilize human translation and review. Although, for some translation tasks, PEMT could be a viable option; especially when it comes to boilerplate or simple text. Transcreation could be used, as well.
  • Legal Content – MT is used quite a bit in the legal field. For legal teams, using Language Identification (LI) and keyword searches can make sifting through thousands of documents much more efficient. There are some instances in which For Informational Purposes Only (FIPO) translation can be used, and MT is a welcome resource for those only needing the “gist.” However, for formal documentation, legal translators are recommended.
  • Literary Translation – For any piece of creative or literary writing, human translation plus revision should always be used. The context and nuance contained in creative copy such as short stories or poems cannot be accurately deciphered by even the most robust MT systems. Transcreation of literary texts will work as well, and provides a way to convey the emotion portrayed in the source document.

No One-Size-Fits-All Approach

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for accurate translations; usually a combination of human translation and MT will produce effective results. This brief list is not comprehensive, and in many instances, varying circumstances will need to be taken into consideration to make the best decision.

Being strategic and systematic about your translation methods will help save time and money in the long run. Generally, the rule of thumb is this: MT should be used for simple texts that won’t be published, while human translation is necessary for external documents that contain complicated prose.


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