> > Proofreading Machine Translation

Free Online Language Translator
+ Human Translation
= A Good Idea?

Should I proofread machine translation?

Agencies use a free online language translator to translate texts and then ask a human translator to proofread them. According to discussions in the online German translator forums, this is becoming increasingly common.

And to say “proofread” is being generous – it’s often a case of “retranslate”.

Why use machine translation? Simple. To save money.

The idea: Use a free online language translator to get the German source text roughly translated into English.

Then get the result proofread and corrected by a real, human translator because generally the rate for proofreading is around 1/3 of the rate for translation.

Tips for clients:

Generally, using a free online language translator as a first step is a false economy.

  • Most translators worth their salt will tell you the text needs completely retranslating, so you’re back to paying their original charge. Result = no savings.
  • Any translator who agrees to edit the text for a rate 1/3 of their normal translation rate will quickly realise their mistake. Hopefully they’ll do a good job, but they’ll be grinding their teeth and swearing never to work for you again. Result = missed opportunity to build a new business partnership.
  • Or the translator they may think that if you aren’t prepared to take the translation seriously then nor will they, and limit the time spent on the edit. Result = not a translation of which to be proud.

Now, I certainly don’t believe all clients have ulterior motives when first turning to machine translation. Usually they misunderstand the skills involved in translation and the need for cultural knowledge to judge context.

Tips for the human translator:

Worst case scenario: you’ve agreed a word rate or line rate but when the translation arrives it's so bad that you effectively have to retranslate the entire text.

It takes longer than you'd planned and you’ve effectively given the client a 66% price discount off your standard translation rate. Are they worth this?


  • Never say “yes” to the client without having read the text first. (And more than just the first paragraph or two).
  • Quote an hourly rate for your work, not a line or word rate.
  • If the client has a set (but unrealistically low) budget, agree in advance that you’ll work for as many hours as that budget will cover, but warn them that then you’ll stop.

Maybe you’ll lose the job, but somehow low paying agencies are often also the ones who are unwilling to negotiate and unreliable when it comes to payments - so it’s probably worth avoiding them in the first place.

I’ve tested 4 of the most popular free online language translators for fun – Google’s Translator, Yahoo’s Babelfish, World Lingo and Paralink - and the most interesting aspect is seeing how little they’ve improved over the past 5 years.  Click on the links and enjoy the results!

Making translation more professional

It’s up to us, as translation professionals, to help educate clients and would-be clients about the value of human translation.

Start with clients who present you with a machine translated text, with their eye firmly on profits before quality. Be firm and stick to your terms.

Unfortunately there will always be translators who get caught out. Try not to be one of them.

The future for machine translation?

As free online language translators become increasingly popular I believe there is an increasingly feeling amongst the general population that translation is something that can be automated. This ignores the intellectual and creative aspect of translation entirely.

The software behind any free online language translator will of course continue to improve. In our global world, being able to understand each other quickly and correctly is increasingly important.

Billions are being invested into automating communication processes – translation, transcription, speech recognition etc., to enable companies to tap into the global marketplace more effectively.

But we’re not there yet.

Return to Top

> > Proofreading Machine Translation

Affiliate disclosure

I occasionally recommend products & services, and if you buy something through one of those links, I receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you. To learn more, please see my affiliate disclosure document.

Hi, I'm Joanna!

Welcome to my German translation website, here to help with all things German translation.

More details here.

What visitors Say

"Liebe Joanna, ich möchte dir ganz herzlich für die vielen nützlichen Informationen danken. Es ist extrem hilfreich. Vielen, vielen Dank!" 
Silke, Germany

"It's really great to see a website dedicated to the translation of only a single language. There are too many general websites around on the web."
Roshni, India

"Thanks, your website is really helpful to read about advice on getting started as a German translator....very grateful!"
Georgie, UK

"Ich bin auf deine Webseite gestoßen und finde die Seite super. Informativ, lebendiger Schreibstill. Danke für deine inspirierende Seite! Beste Grüße!"
Feng, China

Tell us what you think!