There are thousands of professional translators out there, experts in their field, who provide high quality language services to companies and individuals alike. The translation market is also flooded with people who just happen to have a good working knowledge of several languages and who have decided to put their skills to good use and make a living out of it.
And then there are automatic translation tools.
I am a frequent user of Google Translate and I think it's great. I do think that it's amazing that I can just put, say, a short Greek text through it and get an instant English translation which, admittedly, is unlikely to be perfect linguistically speaking, but will convey the general meaning of that text.
What I do find surprising is how many people actually rely on machine translations, without even taking the trouble to get those proofread or post-edited by a human. I have seen business documents, emails, brochures and even whole websites translated by such tools. The results, unsurprisingly, leave a lot to be desired. Why would someone put their company's image or their own image at stake by choosing not to pay for a proper professional translation is beyond me.
There are examples of this aplenty in everyday life. Some time ago on my last visit to Barcelona I picked up a menu in a cafe. It was written in Spanish and English, with one section entitled "Too we are in", followed by a list of all other establishments belonging to that particular chain. It stuck in my mind as it was quite amusing and in a way perhaps even rather charming. Now, I don't know if the people running that place actually used an automatic translation tool or simply chose to get their menu translated by someone whose first language wasn't English. Either way, I very much doubt that a poorly translated menu does much to project a positive image of a cafe or restaurant. I do not remember what the name of the cafe was or what the food was like there, but I sure remember that line.
There is a article on the Economist Johnson blog about a similar story, where the owners of a shop in NYC decided to translate their Welcome sign into many different languages by way of attracting more foreign visitors. A well-intentioned thought, which could have worked a treat, if only they had bothered to get the translations done by native speakers.
There is also a book called Lost in Translation by Charlie Croker, which is a brilliant read. It is essentially a collection of mistranslated signs, adverts and notices from around the world. I bought a copy some years ago, when I was doing a course in conference interpreting. Whenever I open this book and flip through it, it always puts a smile on my face.
So here's the thing: automated translation tools are great. But if you are looking to get content translated into a foreign language for professional purposes, it's best if you do yourself a favour and get it done by a human. Perhaps one day machine translations will be as accurate as those done by language professionals. But that time has not come just yet.