Machine translation is helpful but know its limitations

Machine translation can be very helpful if you just need a rough idea of what a text is about. Popular websites such as TripAdvisor use machine translation all the time to give you reviews in your own language. And Google translate enables us to explore new worlds and cultures whose languages we haven’t mastered. But professional translators know that machine translation engines have their limitations.

Context is key. We need to understand what the topic, in this case building materials, to know whether the terms suggested by a machine translation engine are correct or not.

Machine translation example

In the screen shot above, we see that two well-known machine translation engines have made different suggestions for dampdichte.

Different suggested translations may be useful synonyms, but in this case, they have opposite meanings!

Does the dampdichte folie allow moisture to pass or not? The first entry in the table suggests it does, while the second implies it doesn’t.

The machine translation engines also give differing suggestions for folie. In this context, we need to know whether membrane or foil is correct, or could even film be the correct term. After all, the Dutch for cling film, the convenient food covering we have in the kitchen is vershoudfolie.

We need to know something about building materials to know the correct English term for dampdichte folie.

Translator’s choice: In English, the Dutch term dampdicht means impermeable. Considering where this product is used in construction, I chose the synonym damp-proof. And because the product has six layers, I chose membrane as translation for folie. I then verified my translation choices using various search arguments as follows:

Search term # hits relevance to text
damp-proof foil < 100 home decorating
damp-proof membrane > 550 000 building and construction
impermeable foil > 300 000 garden and horticultural applications
impermeable membrane > 370 000 drainage and infiltration

Tip: you can force the search engine to give you UK websites by adding ‘’ to the search criteria.