In an age of Google translate, why the need for high-end translators?

In an age of Google translate, why the need for high-end translators?

By Paul Golf, Head of Translation, He and Partners

Over the last decade, in addition to translating, interpreting, and project managing a huge range of materials for clients around the world, I have also had the privilege of personally teaching and overseeing the training of many hundreds of aspiring language professionals at undergraduate and master's level. One thing I've noticed about my students is they often ask the question as to how they might distinguish themselves in a competitive market - especially when first starting out. It doesn't take much browsing through online translator communities to find similar concerns abound among professionals, along with a general wariness around industry developments such as advanced AI neural machine translation and their potential impact on the future of the profession.

Long gone are the days where translation was only the territory of a mysterious elite surrounded by shelves of ancient tomes filled with obscure and arcane terminology. Translation of one form or another is readily available to everyone, and if you have spent any time at all browsing the web recently, you are likely to have engaged with translated information perhaps without even noticing. Or maybe you have experimented with a real-time translation app on a holiday or business trip to help get directions or understand something tricky on the menu.

All this begs the question, if quick and easy translation is available at the touch of a button, what value does the professional translator add? Is it time to read the writing on the wall and bow out to Google or Baidu machine translation from now on?

My answer to that question may come as a surprise - for some clients and for some jobs, that is exactly what you should do.

However, the key issue is how do you know? Without an extensive and nuanced understanding of all the potential issues in cross-cultural communication, how do you know when it is the right choice for you and your business to opt for the free option of search engine machine translation or cheap, unqualified labour, compared with the high-end, bespoke service of experienced professionals?

I recall some years ago running a corporate training for a UK-based semi-conductor manufacturer who had begun to see some great sales traction in the Mainland Chinese market with their products. In conversation with their international sales director, I asked if they were in the habit of using professional interpreters for their meetings with prospective clients. He told me that they weren't, and that he was relying on their engineering colleagues at the Chinese manufacturing base who spoke English to come along with them to help interpret. I went on to ask him, "Let me describe a situation to you, and you tell me whether or not this sounds familiar: You and your engineers go together to a sales meeting with a potential customer. Having introduced yourselves, gone through all the formalities and had the tour, you sit down for the sales meeting. You say something in English, your colleague says something in Chinese to your customer, and then the two of them proceed to have a conversation in Chinese without you, with your colleague occasionally breaking off to give you a short two sentence summary of the previous 5 minutes of discussion."

"Yes," he replied. "That is exactly what happens!"

In this case it was actually the engineer who ended up acting as the sales representative, client manager, and public relations spokesperson for the company. The sales director was left relying on a third party to do his job for him, when that person wasn't even trained to do the job. He had no way of telling whether or not what was being said was correct, nor could he use his skills and expertise to their fullest potential because he was hindered by the language barrier. Actually, to be more specific, he was hindered by the lack of having the support of a fully trained and experienced interpreter to facilitate his meeting.

Issues like this crop up all the time when conducting any kind of business between the Chinese-speaking and English-speaking worlds, whether it is a communique between a Contract Research Organization for a global phase 3 clinical trial and the Principal Investigator of a Chinese University Hospital concerning drug delivery protocols and legal oversight of informed consent, or the marketing copy for a Chinese importer of high-end silk products for the USA luxury market who needs to know how to stand out in reaching a totally unfamiliar customer base. When you want to check you know roughly what you're ordering on the menu, you don't necessarily need gold-standard translation (although I did once nearly poison myself eating raw apricot kernels that were mis-labelled as almonds by a clumsy piece of translation software, but that's another story).

When it not only matters that what you want to say is fully transmitted in the language of the other party, but that even the way you say it is pitched correctly and without the potential for confusion, you need to be able to have full confidence in the expertise of the translator.

I always tell my students what has been my professional practice for years. Make yourself available to the client at no additional cost to discuss all the details of their project before you start translating anything. Learn what questions to ask your client so that you can help them understand fully what kind of service they need to accomplish the goals of their project. If all they need is quick, low-end search engine translation software, then advise them accordingly - don't try and sell them your premium rate service if that is not what they need. If all that happens as a consequence of that meeting is that your client is much better informed about the translation process and you have saved them a load of money instead of paying for something they don't need, then you know for sure that you will be the first person they call when they do actually need the 'gold standard', and you won't need to convince them why.


About the author:

Paul read Chinese Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies, Oxford University. He later trained as a professional translator and interpreter at the University of Bath, one of the most prestigious schools for translation studies in the world.

He has more than 15 years of experience working as a translator and consultant with expertise spanning across a wide range of industries including high-tech, education, advertising and marketing, pharmaceutical and clinical trials, psychometrics, religion and literature.

He is also a well-respected academic in the field of Chinese Translation Studies. He has held teaching posts at a number of top universities. Currently, he holds a senior post at the University of Bristol as the Director for its popular MA Translation (Chinese-English) Programme.

Paul is also a published author on China issues, having written and translated a number of books relating to contemporary Chinese society, history, and culture.

Get in touch with Paul Golf, Head of Translation, He and Partners at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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