Google Translate, Bing Translator, Babel Fish—Or Is a Specialist Translator better?

Working within Limitations

If a database search for a literature review brings up an article that’s not written in English, your first reaction may be to dismiss it and move-on to the next article on the list. You could be missing a valuable article that could make an important contribution to your study.

Using one of the free online translation tools that are now available would probably not give you a word-perfect translation (especially if there is any complex terminology involved), but it may provide enough content to decide whether or not a complete translation of the article is worth pursuing.

The Promise of Machine Translation

Science fiction has offered two approaches to real-time translation of foreign languages: the fictitious babel fish from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and the complex machine translation of the voice commands of the Star Trek computers. Other than using the name for a translation software program, we haven’t made much progress with the babel fish, and voice commands for computers are still in the early stages of development.

In that context, we are left with software programs that either process text through rules-based systems or use statistical methodologies to track online language pairs. The current results are rough, often clumsy, and can best be described as basic ‘tourist-level’ translation.

Free Translation Options

If you are looking to translate a few phrases or an article abstract in an emergency, there are limited free options available to you:

  • Google Translate – which first emerged from beta testing in 2006. It is fast, free, and will translate phrases, websites and entire documents. Translations to and from English are much easier than other language pairs (Spanish to Dutch, or Turkish to Thai).
  • Bing Translator – formerly Yahoo’s translator offering, limited to five thousand characters.
  • Babel Fish – the original translation software product, launched in 1999, sold to AltaVista in 2003, and when AltaVista was sold to Yahoo the same year, Babel Fish became the Yahoo translator. In 2014, the Babel Fish name was revived by Ocean Networks and now operates as a single phrase translation option — definitely ‘tourist-level.’

A Strategic Approach

Complete and accurate machine translation may be several years away yet. As such, translation of your academic research should never be left to the mercy of online software options. The level of sophistication may be enough to help you get a rough translation of an abstract, but beyond that, place your work in the capable hands of specialist academic translators who understand the specific terminology of your field and are native speakers.

This may require additional planning and budgeting in the delivery of your research paper, but as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.


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