When Machine Translation Backfires in Chinese

May 05, 2011

It has been long discussed whether machine translation (MT) is reliable and if MT can replace "human translation" in the near future. As this blog shows, MT is not a good solution for "quick translation," especially if critical business or diplomatic relations are at stake.

CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) has greatly changed traditional human translation models with improved translation efficiency, reducing overall language translation cost.  However, Machine Translation (MT) still has many limitations that current technologies cannot yet resolve:

  1. Text and context analysis
  2. Grammar mapping and sentence re-structure
  3. Crossing-culture meaning
  4. Emotional meaning of text
  5. Hidden meaning of text, etc.

In light of the limitations listed above, machine translation should only be used in conjunction with corrective human editing. Although MT can sometimes be effective for high volume, repetitious content that uses a highly constrained vocabulary, it is all too often used for short translations "out of context."

Machine translation used at the wrong time

In spite of this, there has been a trend with more and more companies using MT for short phrases and short sentence translations.  Although phrases and short sentences require less context analysis, less grammar mapping and sentence re-structure, even with very short sentences, it still can be quite challenging for MT to get an accurate translation.

Malaysia's government is still humiliated by its inaccurate translation on the backdrop on the welcoming ceremony for Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and his entourage during a recent visit. The welcome message (Official welcoming ceremony in conjunction with official visit of His Excellency Wen Jiabao to Malaysia) was bilingual in Malay: "Istiadat Sambutan Rasmi Sempena Lawatan Rasmi TYT Wen Jiabao Ke Malaysia"  and Chinese "正式欢迎仪式,与他一起温家宝阁下的正式访问马来西亚". Unfortunately, the translation into the Chinese language made absolutely no sense.

People soon found out that the translation was from machine translation.

This is not the only case. Currently, there is another "joke" circulating amongst Chinese web users. In a promotional banner, the English translation of Chinese AD words '不出合肥,逛遍世界 (visit the whole world within Heifei)' turned to be 'No HeiFei,Guangbian World'. (Google's MT)

Moreover, can you guess what 'To Male Service' is that ICBC (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China) offers? Business service!

Another machine translation mistake is quite evident on the trash can sign below. 'NO MAY RECLAIM' should actually be 'not recyclable'.

Machine translation "cost savings" may be lost in embarrassment

Obviously, our list of examples could be even longer. In summary, even for short phrases, we cannot relay on machine translation alone for accurate translation. Human editing and translation cannot be completely replaced, at least for the foreseeable future.

Chinese market and language resources

For general issues related to Simplified Chinese, check Chinese Translation Quick Facts. To further explore issues specific to Chinese translation and Chinese localization you may wish to review two of our previous blogs:

Globalization Partners International the translation company has also published a highly detailed guide to Chinese website globalization targeting Chinese consumers in a white paper, Website Globalization and E-Business China, which is available via a free download. You may contact GPI at info@globalizationpartners.com or at 866-272-5874 with your specific questions about this market and your project goals. You may also request a complimentary Localization Quote for your project as well.

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Machine translation, Google, China, Chinese, translation, copywriting, localization, advertising

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Jade is a native Chinese speaker from Guangdong, China. She has a degree in English (Advanced Translation and Interpreting) from the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. Her experience includes providing Chinese translations and consecutive interpretations for global clients and events in the fields of travel, hospitality, finance and investments. She has served as a journalist/writer for Media Most Publishing, a banking relationship manager at RAK Bank and has completed freelance content work for Dubai Tourism and Conde Nast Traveller. When she’s not working, she enjoys traveling, short excursions to other Emirates, swimming, watching movies and playing table tennis.