Why Machine Translation Is Not a Replacement for Human Interpretation

Interpretation is a very helpful tool that facilitates communication between people who are speaking different languages. Today, many applications and devices are used to interpret in real-time using machine translation (MT). However, while MT can save time and money, it is not the best option to choose when discussing important issues such as healthcare, legal affairs, or safety requirements with a non-native speaker.


When do we need human interpretation?

Human interpreting is essential in highly sensitive engagements. For example, in healthcare, when determining a diagnosis and administering the right form of treatment, MT can be inaccurate. This is why when a non-English speaker comes to an English-speaking hospital, the staff has a medical interpreter available who can either come in person or provide interpretation over the phone or by video to guarantee the information they share with the patient is accurately translated into the patient’s primary language.

Immigration workers also rely on interpretation to correctly assess an incoming refugee's status. It is important to interview them in their native language to avoid misunderstanding, making the role of the interpreter invaluable. In some cases, both parties try using machine translation devices to facilitate communication when no interpreter is available. However, since MT is not always 100% accurate, some countries have issued guidelines on machine translation’s use in immigration contexts, such as the UK Immigration Enforcement. According to these guidelines, machine translation apps and devices should only be used as a last resort if no interpreter is available and should be avoided on important issues such as medical appointments, asylum interviews, and critical paperwork. The guidelines stress the importance of in-person translation and also focus on the benefits of telephonic interpretation in such situations.

Therefore, machine translation apps and devices can be a great help in providing communication between two parties speaking different languages, but they should not be relied upon for matters where accuracy is of paramount importance.


What are the different interpretation options?

There are four interpretation options available, depending on the need:

  • Simultaneous interpretation: the content is interpreted from one language to another in real-time. This form of interpretation requires specific equipment such as booths, microphones, and headphones for the listeners. Quite often interpreters work in a team of two or three to be able to smoothly perform the task – one works, the other/s rest and then take turns. This form allows interpretation from one into multiple languages as it is done in the European Parliament and Commission meetings, for example.
  • Consecutive interpretation: the content is broken down into pieces so that it can be interpreted. The speaker pauses after 5 to 15 minutes of speaking, so that the interpreter can render the content into the other language. One of the main advantages of this mode of interpretation is that it’s more accessible and cost-effective.
  • Whispering (chuchotage): this method is simultaneous interpretation in its essence without the use of equipment. It is done when there are one or 2-3 people who need interpretation. The interpreter sits close to them and interprets the conversation in real-time while almost whispering into the ear of the listener.
  • Remote interpretation: this form has grown in popularity because of Covid-19. It allows the interpreter to provide both simultaneous and consecutive service without being physically present at the venue. The interpretation is provided through different platforms. Here we can differentiate between video-conferencing and over-the-phone interpretation depending on the equipment used.

When is the appropriate time to use MT?

Machine translation has evolved significantly through the years and the quality of the translation it offers has also improved. Here are situations where it is useful:

  1. Traveling. One of the best examples of MT devices and apps replacing human interpretation is for personal usage while traveling in a foreign country. For example, you can ask locals for directions using your cell phone as an interpretation device.
  2. Shopping. Translation apps can save you time when you are looking for goods or services and you need to explain exactly what you need in a different language. Still, keep in mind that if it comes to medical or legal services, MT is not reliable enough.
  3. Friends and family. Another option is to use MT apps while chatting, messaging, or talking on the phone with foreign-speaking friends or relatives. While the app won’t translate all the cultural nuances of the conversation, you will still be able to communicate effectively.
  4. Entertainment. A fun way to utilize MT apps is to translate songs, ads, or videos on the internet.


In all, MT is very useful when you need to understand the gist of certain written or spoken text, but it should be handled with caution as it can lead to serious blunders. When comparing machine translation vs. professional human translation, the winner will always be the human professional because of their linguistic and cultural awareness.


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