Proofreading free machine translation

Free Machine Translation + Human Input = The ideal solution?

Some translation agencies may use machine translation, and then ask a human translator to proofread the translated text.

And to say “proofread” is being generous – it’s often a case of “retranslate”.

According to discussions in the online German translator forums, this practice is becoming increasingly common.

So why is free machine translation becoming more popular?


To save time and money.

So what's wrong with using free machine translation?

The approach is to use free machine translation to get the German source text roughly translated into English.

Then to get the result proofread and corrected by a real, human translator, because generally the rate for proofreading is around 1/3 of the rate for translation.

However, often using free machine translation as a first step is a false economy.

  • Most translators worth their salt will tell you the text needs completely retranslating, so you’re back to paying their original charge .  Result = no savings.

  • Any translator who agrees to edit the text for a rate 1/3rd of their normal translation rate  will quickly realise their mistake. Hopefully they’ll do a good job, but they’ll be grinding their teeth and swearing never to work for you again.  Result = missed opportunity to build a new business partnership.
  • Or the translator they may think that if you aren’t prepared to take the translation seriously then nor will they, and limit the time spent on the edit.  Result = not a translation of which to be proud.

A tip for translation buyers

Now, I certainly don’t believe all clients have ulterior motives when first turning to free machine translation.

Usually they misunderstand the skills involved in translation and the need for cultural background in order to judge context and appropriate language use.

It is true to say that huge strides have been made in the accuracy of machine translation in just the last few years, and there is certainly an important and growing role for machine translation in more automated environments.

But as the Germans say,  "Knapp daneben ist auch vorbei", i.e. almost right is still wrong, and a substandard translation presented to clients and partners in today's global marketplace can create a negative impression of its publisher.

Instead, building a solid working relationship with a reputable local translation agency or translator will pay dividends in terms of output you can be confident in.

A tip for human translators

Worst case scenario: you’ve agreed a word rate or line rate, but when the translation you've been asked to proofread arrives, it's so bad that you effectively have to retranslate the entire text.

It takes longer than you'd planned and you’ve effectively given the client a 66% price discount off your standard translation rate. Are they worth this?


  • Never say “yes” to the client without having read the text first. (And more than just the first paragraph or two).
  • Quote an hourly rate for your work, not a line or word rate.
  • If the client has a set (but unrealistically low) budget, agree in advance that you’ll work for as many hours as that budget will cover, but warn them that then you’ll stop.

Maybe you’ll lose the job, but somehow low paying agencies are often also the ones who are unwilling to negotiate and unreliable when it comes to payments - so it’s probably worth avoiding them in the first place.

I’ve tested 4 of the most popular free online language translators for fun – Google’s Translator, Microsoft's Bing Translator, World Lingo and Paralink - and the most interesting aspect is seeing how much they’ve improved over the past 5 years.  Click on the links and enjoy the results!

Making translation more professional

Free machine translation

It’s up to us, as translation professionals, to help educate clients and would-be clients about the value of human translation.

Start with clients who present you with a machine translated text, with their eye firmly on profits before quality.

Be firm and stick to your terms.

A polite and professional approach, and doing a good job, means both client and translator benefit.

Don't confuse machine translation with computer-assisted translation  (CAT) - these are translation programs used by professional translators to help automate the process of translation, and ensure consistency across texts. More about CAT tools here.

The future of free machine translation?

As free machine translation becomes increasingly popular, there is a growing belief that translation is something that can be completely automated.

The software behind any machine translator will, of course, continue to improve, and billions are being invested into automating communication processes – translation, transcription, speech recognition etc., to enable companies to tap into the global marketplace more effectively.

Machine translation is a megatrend, and its future role the topic of much debate and discussion. The new possibilities it opens up are often seen as a direct threat to human translators.

However, just as computers have created entirely new industries and job opportunities whilst eradicating others, I think machine translation will probably do the same.

Globalisation places a greater focus on translation.

Machine translation will be applied in fields suited to automation, whilst qualified and specialised human translators will always be able to make a good living translating texts requiring more cultural and linguistic sensitivity.

So don't worry about the impact of free machine translation. The future is bright for professional human translators!

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German to English Translation

Joanna Scudamore-Trezek

I'm a German to English translator living and working in Vienna, Austria. I turn German texts into clear and accessible English, allowing clients to present their stories, ideas and information to a completely new audience. My business and marketing clients rely on me to get their message across clearly and effectively.  How can I help you today?

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