Machine Translation: When to Use It – and When to Avoid It

A toy robot leaning forward slightly

The Robots Are Here

In today’s globalized world, the need for efficient and accurate translations is greater than ever. With advancements in technology, machine translation has emerged as a popular solution, one that has caught the public’s attention. While machine translation does offer convenience and speed, it’s important to understand its limitations and to know when it’s appropriate to use it and when it should be avoided. In this blog post, we’ll explore the advantages and disadvantages of machine translation and provide insights into when to leverage its benefits and when you should seek human expertise for your translation projects.

Understanding What Machine Translation Is

Machine translation refers to the automated process of translating text from one language into another using computer algorithms. It uses statistical models to analyze and generate translations based on vast amounts of linguistic data. Machine translation systems have made significant progress in recent years and can now provide quick and accessible translations for a wide range of content.

Despite the advances, however, machine translation is still far from perfect. Even sentences that sound fine to a native speaker may have been translated incorrectly or inconsistently. And even the most powerful MT cannot understand or correctly translate human culture.

Advantages of Machine Translation

Machine translation offers a number of advantages, especially as it becomes more powerful and more accurate. These advantages include:


  • Efficiency and speed: Machine translation excels at handling large volumes of text in a short amount of time, making it useful for rapidly translating large quantities of documents or web pages.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Machine translation can be cost-effective, especially for basic or non-critical content, as it reduces the need for human involvement.
  • Communication aid: Machine translation can be a helpful tool for understanding the gist of foreign texts, enabling communication and an exchange of information across languages, including in cases where the speaker has no prior knowledge of the relevant language.

Limitations of Machine Translation

While machine translation offers a number of advantages, it also has limitations that need to be considered. Failure to do so can have significant financial, legal, and reputational consequences. The limitations include:


  • Accuracy and quality: Machine translation often falls short in producing accurate and nuanced translations, particularly when it comes to complex or domain-specific content that requires a deep understanding of context, culture, and industry-specific terminology. And without a human who is capable of understanding the language and assessing its accuracy, there simply is no way to know when the quality is lacking.
  • Lack of cultural understanding: Machine translation algorithms struggle with capturing cultural nuances, idiomatic expressions, humor, and localized meanings, resulting in translations that may sound unnatural or inappropriate. Again, a human native speaker will be able to tell right away when this is the case.
  • Confidentiality and privacy: Machine translation services offered online may pose risks to confidentiality, as sensitive or proprietary information could be exposed to third-party servers. Many users are either unaware of this risk, or they are willing to accept it. This can lead to significant legal and reputational problems down the road.

When to Use Machine Translation

Nevertheless, machine translation does have a role to play in modern communications strategy. Especially for international businesses or organizations, there are benefits that need to be weighed against the risks. Some of the cases when machine translation might make sense include:


  • Drafts and internal communication: Machine translation can be useful for quickly generating draft translations or understanding the general meaning of internal documents within an organization. These draft translations can then be edited by humans, a process known as machine translation post-editing, or MTPE.
  • Gisting and information retrieval: When the primary goal is to extract basic information from foreign content, machine translation can be helpful for obtaining a general understanding of the content’s meaning. This process is known as “gisting.”
  • Filtering multilingual content: Machine translation can assist in filtering through multilingual content, allowing users to identify relevant information for further processing or analysis. This can help users identify relevant content that needs to be translated by a professional translator and save money in the process.

When to Avoid Machine Translation

There are times when machine translation can be useful, and there are other times when it should be avoided. In some cases, machine translation, while accurate, may involve errors that could quite literally be a matter of life and death (for example, clinical trial documentation and other health-related documents). In others, errors may result in significant financial consequences or reputational damage. Because there is no human “in the loop” in machine translation, it simply isn’t possible to know. And this is precisely where problems can crop up.

With this in mind, it is important to understand the context when machine translation is inadvisable and why. Following are some types of content that require a human expert rather than machine translation:


  • Legal, medical, and technical content: For critical and specialized content where accuracy, precision, and compliance are essential, relying solely on machine translation is not recommended. Human expertise and subject matter knowledge are crucial in these domains.
  • Marketing and creative content: Content that requires creativity, cultural adaptation, and an engaging tone should be entrusted to human translators to ensure an accurate and culturally appropriate message. Humans can appeal to other humans better than a machine can.
  • Official and client-facing communication: When representing a company or engaging with clients, it is vital to use professional translation services to maintain a high level of quality, accuracy, and brand consistency. Errors or inconsistencies can result in lost customers – and lost revenue.


Humans in the Loop

No matter how advanced machine translation technology may become, it will always be essential to include humans in the translation process in some form. This is because humans, unlike machines – no matter how sophisticated they may become – interact with other humans and understand the subtle nuances of language. For this reason, it will always be advisable to have “humans in the loop.”

The form this human involvement takes may vary, depending on the type of translation. A confidential or medical document will require more human input than a general document used for informational purposes. It is important to carefully weigh all factors when assessing translation needs, which is a task that a specialized translation provider can help with.


Machine translation has its merits, particularly in terms of speed and efficiency for certain types of content. However, the limitations of machine translation when it comes to accuracy, cultural understanding, and privacy need to be fully understood before using it for sensitive documents, especially life sciences or legal documents. As a general rule, machine translation is suitable for internal drafts, getting a basic understanding of information (gisting), and filtering multilingual content. However, for critical, specialized, and client-facing content, human translators remain indispensable.

Striking the right balance between the use of machine translation and leveraging human expertise is the key to achieving the highest quality and meeting the diverse needs of multilingual communication in today’s interconnected world.

If you’re not sure which approach is right for you and your business, speak with the language experts at GLS to assess your needs. In some cases, they may recommend using machine translation. But in other cases, having a human expert will be critical to the success of your translation projects.

Get in touch with GLS today to find out how we can help you make the wisest decisions about your content and meet your translation needs with the most advanced human and technological solutions available.

By Jim Cohen