Why Doesn’t My Translation Make Sense?

Whenever we encounter text written in a foreign language, we quickly whip out an app or type into Google Translate to get a translated version that we can understand. Sometimes, though, what we read still doesn’t make sense.

In today’s technological age, most people use machine translations when it comes to translating different languages. The results, however, are often so poor that it takes more time to fix and understand them, than it would be to start over with a human translator.

Some words which have more than one definition can completely alter the meaning of the text if translated incorrectly. Particularly, words such as homonyms and homophones are the ones that can make a translator’s work even more difficult, and render machine translation useless.

Unless a translation takes into consideration the context of the entire text, the correct meaning cannot be discerned.

A homonym is described as:


[Hom-uh-nim] A word which has the same pronunciation and sometimes the same spelling as another, but has a different meaning. (For example; count, flat and mint)

Each homonym has multiple meanings. The problem with a machine translator is that its job is to simply convert each word into the chosen language. It does not matter to the machine if the sentence makes sense as a whole or not. You can try any example to analyze this shortcoming of machine translation, either online on a computer or on a cell-phone.

Machine translators should not necessarily become obsolete, however. Many apps which allow for real-time, augmented-reality translations have helped people to translate languages when needed. Whether it is for conversation in a foreign country while on a vacation, or for an online chat with a business associate.

According to stories based on people’s experiences, there have been various instances where a machine translator has helped to save lives, such as that of a Congolese woman who gave birth in an Irish ambulance. This woman was aided successfully when the paramedics used Google Translate to communicate with her.

Machine translators are not entirely wrong. However, without the human element to check whether the translation makes sense or not, the result can become a jumble of words within a sentence. This is especially true if a professional document is being translated.

An experienced person in the industry will know if the translated document is the result of a machine translation, or translated by an expert linguist. Similarly, even translations by non-native linguists are easy to identify.

Technology has taken us by leaps and bounds into the future and is responsible for making our lives easier. However, sometimes a human element still needs to be involved. While technology for translation is helpful, it falls short in many cases. It’s unlikely that it will reach the contextual accuracy of an expert human linguist.

By Allison Baillieston | December 12, 2016 | Categories: ITC | No Comments

About the Author: Allison Baillieston