Dangers and advantages of using open source Machine Translation

Dangers and advantages of using open source Machine Translation

Many people looking to instruct legal translation services confuse Machine Translation and Post Editing (MTPE) with free online and open source tools such as Google Translate, but in reality, it is quite different. Naturally, it is concerning to think that you are paying for a premium service simply for the translator to use an online translation tool that offers no confidentiality, security, or quality assurance. Similarly, if that is what happens, you could just cut out the middleman and stick your text through Google Translate yourself, right? However, reality is, as ever, somewhat different, and there is a role Machine Translation Post Editing can play in the translation of some legal documents, whereas there really isn’t for online open source tools like Google Translate or Bing Translate. In this article, we look at what Machine Translation is, and the benefits, drawbacks, and limitations of this type of translation. 

What How is Machine Translation and is it different from Google Translate? 

In simplest terms, Machine Translation is translation carried out by a computer without human involvement, so yes, Google Translate is ‘machine translation’. However, not all machines were created equal. Open source is as scary as it sounds; your files or any text you put through such a machine are all potentially out there on the internet, have a look at the worryingly brief and all encompassing privacy policies attached to such machine engines to get an idea. This also throws up a side point that in putting sensitive or confidential text through such a machine you are potentially in breach of your own company’s privacy and data use policies. If we move away from open source to restricted, stand alone engines however, greater security and data protection is offered as they comply with certain requirements. In short, there is no guarantee that your confidential documents will be kept safe with open source technology and all open source machines we have come across thus far make it obvious in their policies they will read your data at the very minimum to ‘train their engines’. 

Open source machine translation can be very useful when trying to understand a menu or ask for directions whilst on your holiday, but you may have noticed often odd, not quite natural, or downright funny translations can often pop up - generic, open source machine translation engines are just that, generic. Not what you want when it comes to a specialist subject document, a contract, or a piece of evidence required for use in a court case. The non-open source, stand alone machine translation engines mentioned in the above paragraph can provide much more sophisticated translations as they can ‘trained’ for a specific industry and type of translation. This type Machine Translation tools used by professional translators and language service providers (LSPs) can learn from the information they receive to provide increasingly accurate translations over time; however, this does need to be caveated with the fact it is still a machine, which does not yet have the ability to judge nuance, tone of voice, and culture differences and appropriateness like a human professional. Oftentimes, this type of machine translation will be paired with ‘post editing’ where a human reviews the machine output for accuracy. This is useful where a large amount of text needs turning around in a short amount of time, but still wont give the same output as a human, as here the post editor is reviewing for accuracy, not rewriting to ensure correct tone of voice etc... 

What are the benefits of Machine Translation? 

There are many benefits to Machine Translation, and it can prove a very useful tool in the right circumstances. 

Speed and volume

Machine Translation is most suitable for repetitive, volume work that is required in a short time frame. For example, if you need to translate a large number of case documents for legal proceedings or you need to create an e-discovery bundle in a different language. As MT tools can translate millions of words in seconds and learn from the processed information, machine translation is an invaluable tool for high volume projects. Machine translation can help the human translators involved in the project to translate large quantities of information and identify any materials that require editing or full human translation. 

Reduced costs

With increased speed and efficiency, the overall cost of your translation project is reduced.  Using Machine Translation alongside the expertise of an experienced legal translator can reduce the total cost by 15-30 per cent. One of the key advantages to combining human expertise and understanding with the efficiency of machine translation is that you find a careful balance between speed, quality and cost. 

It remains essential that legal translation.  retains the expertise of a qualified and experienced human legal translator, even with the benefits Machine Translation can offer. 

What are the disadvantages of machine translation? 

There are certain circumstances where machine translation is simply not appropriate. Typical legal sector examples include translating: 

  • Witness statements, claims forms or other testimonies where emotive language is critical to the case's outcome. 
  • Birth certificates, marriage certificates or death certificates, which must be certified for a visa or court purposes.
  • Important contracts or terms and conditions as there is no margin for error and any mistranslation could have very serious consequences. 
  • Documents that will be relied upon in court as evidence.

The main disadvantage of machine translation is that a machine will never have the nuanced understanding of a qualified legal translator. In particular, problems that may arise from using machine translation only includes: 


Lawyers are skilled linguists, and correctness is an essential part of the profession. No matter what kind of legal document you require to be translated, correctness and accuracy is essential. However, machine translation may lose some of this correctness when translating the text as a whole into another language. Although the ‘fluency’ of machine output has improved in recent years, fluency can often disguise inaccuracy, omissions, and incorrectness. For this reason, it is essential for an experienced legal translator to oversee machine translation projects to ensure the final outcome is as correct as possible. 


There may be certain documents and formats not suitable for machine translation. For example, where you have a scanned image of a document in JPEG format, the machine translation tool may be unable to recognise the file. As a result, in many cases, although machine translation may be useful for the substance of the document, the file format can prevent it from being useful. Clean editable documents are paramount as source files when feeding a machine.

Quality and precision 

Machine translations will rarely be as precise and high quality as ones that an experienced legal translator has created. Machine translations may fail to contextualise the subject matter, cannot grasp cultural references, and simply cannot match human understanding and accuracy. When quality and accuracy are of utmost importance, we would always recommend utilising the skill and experience of an competent legal translator.

Contact IMD Translation

At IMD Translation, our specialist legal translators use all appropriate tools at their disposal to ensure our customers receive the highest quality translations ahead of important deadlines. We will never open source machine translation, and only  use other machine translation engines if it has been specially requested by you and thoroughly discussed with you prior to a project go-ahead and kick off. To discuss a legal translation project with us, contact us today.