Google translate interface

Tips for translating responsibly using translation machines

Many people regularly use free machine translation services when they work, such as Google Translate or DeepL. As convenient as they may be, it does put you at risk of a data leak. In fact, at the touch of a button, you not only translate your text, but also share its contents on the internet. How does this work? And how can you use machine translation services responsibly? Lonneke Dortmans, translation expert at In’to Languages, can tell you everything you need to know.

Lonneke is team leader of the Translation Department at In’to Languages and has worked in the translation industry for almost 25 years, where she has followed all technological developments with interest. Over the years, she has seen translation technology - translation software, speech recognition and machine translation services - gaining ground. Lonneke: “Almost everyone who has to write in another language has used a machine translation service at some point. It’s an easy, quick solution, and free too. Machine translation services have also become better and, fortunately, real mistakes are not as common anymore.”

Ignorance

However, what many people fail to realise when using free machine translation services is that they themselves contribute to the development of the service. “All texts entered into the machine are stored and reused to improve the translators. Based on all the inputs, underlying algorithms then determine what translation is most likely,” Lonneke explains.

“So, in effect, by using these tools, you automatically give permission for your texts to be used for this purpose. This means if you put your text through a free translation service, you also transfer ownership of the text to the company behind the translator. From the point of view of the Copyright Act, if you did not write the text yourself, you would actually have to ask permission from the person who wrote the text first. This all applies to websites like Google Translate and DeepL as well as to the built-in Microsoft Office translation programme.”

“You automatically transfer ownership to the company behind the translator”

Awareness

The fact that so many people do not realise that using a free translation service means a text is automatically made public is quite dangerous, Lonneke thinks. “Information can fall into the wrong hands. Many people are unaware of this. And this is exactly why we want to raise awareness about this. Imagine a scientific invention going public prematurely due to ignorance and the irresponsible use of a translation tool.” In some cases, it is not only a bad idea to use a free translation service, but not even permitted. “For example, translating a personnel file in that way is unacceptable because it violates privacy legislation,” Lonneke explains. “But even short emails can contain confidential information. In short: always think carefully before putting a text through a free machine translation service.”

Responsible use

By now, everyone is so used to the convenience of free machine translation services that they have become part of everyday life. “And they’re useful,” says Lonneke, “providing you’re aware of the risks and use them responsibly.” To make sure there are no data leaks, Lonneke recommends only using paid machine translation services while at work. This way you can be sure that your text will not be shared on the internet and the contents will not be used for wrong purposes. If you do not have the ability to purchase these tools yourself, you can have your texts translated for a small fee within the secure translation environment of In’to Languages.

“Machine translators invariably designate doctors as men, and nurses as women”

Human input remains indispensable

Another reason to be reluctant to use a machine translator is that the raw output is often still not good enough. Although translation machines have improved over the years, you cannot use a machine translation unchecked even for an ‘exotic’ language like Dutch, and human input is still indispensable.

Lonneke: “Translation machines often cannot cope with humor or puns - to name a few examples. Gender bias sometimes creeps unintentionally into a translation too: for instance, doctors are invariably referred to as men and nurses as women. Machine translation also disregards cultural conventions: what goes down really well in one language might not be the case for another. So machine translations can be unintentionally inappropriate or even hurtful.”

Garbage in, garbage out

Finally, the saying garbage in, garbage out applies to machine translation. If you have a poorly written text translated by a machine, this will result in a poor, often incomprehensible translation. “With human translations, translators also have to spend more time on poorly written source texts,” says Lonneke, “but they still usually deliver good translations, or at least better than the originals. If only because they inquire about the text if its original meaning is unclear.”

This is why Lonneke recommends: “If your text is for internal use, or if you just want to quickly find out what the text says, then using a translation machine is fine. If you are going to distribute the text to colleagues, it is wise to proofread the machine translation very critically. If a text is shared with customers, partners or other interested parties, or if you plan on posting the translation on your website, for example, it is better to opt for a human translation, created by a professional translator and proofreader with the right expertise.”

Secure machine translation with professional post-editing

If there is not enough budget or time for human translation, then machine translation with post-editing could be an option. In’to Languages started offering this service recently. “If you want a translation with post-editing, the translation is first translated in a secure environment using a machine translation service. Next, a professional editor checks the machine translation for accuracy, context, consistency, cultural conventions and language use,” Lonneke explains. “This way, you receive a comprehensible translation suitable for the target audience. And it’s not unimportant to emphasise this: translated in a secure environment!”

If you would like personal advice to see what service suits your communication needs best and how we organise these services from a security point of view, the In’to Languages’ translation department is always happy to look into this with you.

Written by
drs. L.H.A.J. Dortmans (Lonneke)
L.H.A.J. Dortmans (Lonneke)
Lonneke Dortmans studied Dutch, French and Spanish at the Translation Academy in Maastricht and French language and literature at Radboud University. Over the past 25 years, she has worked as an editor, sworn translator, project manager and head of department, as a freelancer and at larger translation agencies. Lonneke joined In’to Languages in 2016 and works as a team leader of the Translation & Text Editing department.