Automatic Free Translations Usually Just Don’t Cut It

Several people, myself included, wonder why if technology has advanced to the point it has, with computers that can win a chess game against the most capable and experienced player or make the most complex calculations, then why automatic translation basically doesn’t cut it.

You can go ahead and try Google translator (, or Babel Fish ( or any of the many automatic translation services and programs available on the Web, and you will see that the results are usually far from what you would expect.

Automatic Free Translations Basically Don’t Work

The reason why computers are not good translators is basically because translation is not a logical process. Computers are great at adding numbers and performing any logical sequence or transaction. They are great at remembering stuff too, so as far as vocabulary goes, a computer is an unparalleled resource for any person wishing to know the meaning of a word or expression.

Unfortunately, languages were not born out of translating one tongue into another. Languages are living entities that grow and branch out every day. That is precisely the reason why languages such as Latin and Old English are called “Dead Languages” ( (others are extinct languages (, precisely because they have stopped “living”, they no longer have any native speakers and for that reason, have stopped growing, branching out, developing.

Many languages derive from another and for that reason they have a similar structure, sound, feeling and even vocabulary (for instance Spanish and Portuguese), however, if you speak Portuguese and you have never had any contact with Spanish, chances are you will understand basic things spoken very slowly but if you try to go on the street and listen to people talking among themselves you will probably end up without a clue of what they are talking about.

Because let’s face it… even within speakers of the same language, many times we are left completely dumbfounded. Have you ever tried to listen into the conversations of teenagers, or scientists, or even people from different nationalities… come on… are they even speaking your language?

Then Why Do They Bother Developing Translation Software?

Computers today are thought to have reached the intelligence level of a mouse. Hum… I haven’t seen that many mice dedicated to translation yet! However, scientists are expecting computers to get smarter and smarter every day. Even to the point that Sci-Fi movies and Isaac Asimov books might become a reality (if we don’t greenhouse the world to death before that).

So, the only way for automatic translations to become better is to continue existing and to continue attracting users (and funds for development).

However, let’s be honest about something. If you receive and email from a friend and you need help understanding its content, then a computerized translation is more than enough for you. It will certainly help you communicate and even have a little fun with the unexpected results.

Also, if you are browsing a website, usually choosing to translate it using Google or Babel Fish is enough to give you an idea of what you are looking at. And you have no idea how much help that is already! Can you imagine how many millions of people have access to information generated in different languages thanks to this free translation technology? These applications and services are truly building invisible bridges across cultures and languages… what else can you ask for?

And Why Would You Pay a Professional Translator?

Well, a professional translator ( is a person who (usually) speaks natively at least one of the languages you need to translate to or from. Also, this person is very fluent in the other language and not only understands the words, but also the meaning and cultural nuances of the text you need to translate.

If you have a business proposal for a customer… you want to use the services of a professional translator ( If you are signing a contract in another country and do not speak the language, you really want to hire a professional translator, or why not… a professional translator ( who may be present during the negotiation to help both parties communicate fluently.

Are Good Translators Hard to Come By?

Honestly… YES! A good translator is not just a person who speaks well two or more languages. A good translator loves language, enjoys grammar, plays mental games translating words and phrases (my new hobby is to watch a translated TV show or movie and figure out what was the original phrase that produced the translated result… sick… I know).

Good translators are perfectionists, are people who enjoy learning and gladly accept (and welcome) new knowledge. They say, “Shakespeare is as good as the person who translates his work”, actually many writers and poets are translators and voluntarily translate the works of colleagues they admire and look up to.

But I guess it isn’t practical at all to ask your translation candidate if he/she enjoys grammar and knowledge, and would gladly learn about your particular subject… or is it? In any case, references from satisfied customers ( should help you; also, if you speak both of languages, requesting a sample document can also be useful. Otherwise, play it by ear, chat a little with this person or exchange emails… is he/she making grammatical mistakes on the communications? Is he/she misspelling already? That should tip you off about a sloppy translator.

What About Interpreters?

Interpreters ( are also translators. Normally simultaneous (verbal or oral) translators (http:// are called interpreters, because their work includes interpreting a communication between two parties. According to the dictionary, interpretation is the “action of explaining the meaning of something”, so an Interpreter ( is someone that not only translates the words he/she hears in the other language, but also explains to the listener what the speaker is actually trying to say. For this purpose, an interpreter will make use of his/her cultural background and experience to place into context the message of the speaker.

A simultaneous interpreter (http:// works with the aid of special simultaneous interpretation equipment (, which generally consists of a signal transmitter (cabled, radio frequency or infrared) and receivers in the hands of the listeners. The equipment will also include headphones and microphones for the interpreters to listen to the speaker and translate to the audience.

A consecutive interpreter will first listen to a few phrases from the speaker, who will then stop and allow the interpreter to repeat the message to the listeners.

In a whispering interpretation, the interpreter stays close to the listener and “whispers” the translation simultaneously as the speaker talks. Normally, when the listener needs to speak, usually the interpreter will use the consecutive interpretation technique, or if equipment (, is available, simultaneous interpretation can also be performed.

How do you know if a good interpreter is working for you?

Well, usually only the audience can tell you if the interpretation is working fine for them. However, if it isn’t, don’t assume it is necessarily because you have a bad interpreter… maybe your conference style ( is not particularly well suited to their work.

You may be speaking too fast, or your rhythm may not be very even, or maybe you are not finishing your ideas properly. However, if you think you are keeping a steady flow of ideas at a reasonable speed, then watch the reaction of your audience. Do they seem bored? Are they laughing at your jokes? When you ask for participation or questions, do they respond in any way to you? That should be enough to tell you that something is wrong, either with the way you are explaining things or with the interpretation.

In the case of simultaneous interpreters (, and translators in general always ask for references, price (high or low) is not necessarily an indication of quality or experience.

Paying a Fair Price for Your Translation

And talking about prices… if free translation services are usually not the best for business purposes, then how much it costs to hire a translator or interpreter?

A translator or interpreter is a well-trained, highly qualified and educated individual. Good interpreters and translators are hard to find and excellent ones are simply rare. So you should expect to pay them similarly to highly qualified professionals, such as accountants, average lawyers or others.

Although there are also “diva” interpreters, usually members of closed associations, who will not only charge significantly higher that “informal” interpreters, but will also request working conditions that may be beyond your budget or capabilities. These types of interpreters have usually been “bred” by international organizations such as the UN and the OAS, which traditionally have had extensive budgets and preferential conditions for everyone involved.

In any case, a good “informal” interpreter can charge anything between US and US an hour. Rates depend very much on the country where you will be hiring the interpreters. American and European interpreters are in general more expensive than interpreters in Latin America, India, Africa, etc.

Also take note that simultaneous (or consecutive) interpreters ( will usually work in pairs, switching between them every 20 or so. This is normally the most professional way to perform an interpretation since the work involved requires extreme concentration and mental effort. However, if you will meet for just a few hours, you should be able to find an interpreter willing to work alone.

If you plan to take your interpreters to another country or city, please take into account that you will probably have to pay travel expenses, lodging and meals, similar to those of everyone else in your party, besides to their hourly or daily professional fees.

Now, for document translation (, you should again expect a very wide range of prices depending on the country where you are hiring the services and the languages involved. It can go from as low as US.05 per word to as much as US.20. Rush projects will certainly cost you a lot more than assignments that can wait a few days.

In the case of written translations (, try to avoid hiring a translation broker. These companies specialize in dividing your work into pieces and giving them to several translators who work on it at the same time. If you have a very big document and time is of the essence, then you may not have another option. However, if you have the time to give your work directly to a translator (and you trust him/her of course and have checked their references and experience), then you will probably save money, obtain a more consistent and better translation, and will be supporting one or more independent professionals.

The author is an experienced translator and interpreter residing in Costa Rica ( She works independently with the help of other local professionals. She has been exposed to translation and interpretation projects for more than 12 years and has thoroughly been involved in every aspect of their organization and management. You can visit her information website at:

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