Different translation types – a guide

At its essence, translation is simple – to convey the meaning of a text in one language in a text in a second language. But if you are in need of a translation, you may be wondering whether to cut costs and use machine translation or post-edited translation (MTPE), or to stick with a human translator. There are pros and cons to each (although some have more cons than others, hint: machine translation!), but before we look into these, it is important to consider the different fields of translation and how the different translation types are more or less suited to these very different disciplines.

From technical translation to literary translation

Translators who are just starting out are often advised to niche down and nail their specialty, and there is a lot of sense to this. The translation spectrum is so broad that it is almost impossible to be an all-round translator who can translate every different type of text effectively.

There are a lot of different types of translation – from technical translation through medical translation and academic translation; to marketing, website and SEO translation; to literary translation. And while technical translation requires translators with an in-depth subject knowledge and high levels of accuracy, literary translation demands translators with a real creative flair and skill for writing.

What is technical translation?

Technical translation is a broad term covering translations of technical documents, such as user manuals, specification sheets, test reports and internal documents. These types of translations require an in-depth knowledge of the subject matter and are likely to include very specific terminology.

Technical translation is also often used to describe translations for specific sectors, such as manufacturing, automotive, construction, IT, chemistry, finance and medicine.

What is literary translation?

Not to be confused with literal translation (which means translating the words rather than translating the meaning – a common fault of machine translation, as you will see below), literary translation means translating literary texts. 

Ever read any Haruki Murakami? Unless you are a Japanese speaker, the version of Kafka on the Shore that you read will have been a literary translation. Literary translators are widely regarded as being at the pinnacle of the translation industry. They are able to craft translations that are so well written they constitute novels and poems in their own right. 

Literary translation requires not only excellent language and writing skills, but also the ability to mimic the original author’s writing style, to deal with word plays and to adapt cultural references and concepts so they are not just understood by the reader, but seamlessly integrated into the text.

Other types of translation

Technical translation and literary translation are the two opposite ends of the translation spectrum. Other common types of translation include commercial translation – i.e. translations for businesses, such as business communications, PowerPoint presentations, product catalogues; marketing translation, website translation and SEO translation; and software localisation. It is also fairly commonplace within the sector to distinguish between translations for different industries, such as financial translations, greentech translations, translations for the tourism sector, etc.

Note that we haven’t mentioned interpreting yet – that is because we are talking about the written word here and not spoken language. That is the key difference between interpretation and translation.

If you are in need of a translation, you will no doubt have stumbled across “free” translation tools like Google Translate, Deepl and the like. But how effective are these machine translation tools for the different areas of translation that we have looked at above. Is it ever better to use machine translation than a human translator? And what about post-edited translations?

Office computer

What is machine translation?

Machine translation means using an automated tool to translate text from one language into another. The most common machine translation tool is Google Translate. You enter text, specify the target language, and Google Translate provides you with an automated translation.

Machine translation is becoming increasingly sophisticated and it has now reached the point where some translation companies offer it as part of their service. The problem with machine translation is that, at the end of the day, machines are machines, and they just aren’t able to cope with the nuances in languages. 

One of the greatest challenges and, dare I say it, thrills of being a translator is working out how to convey concepts from the source text that simply don’t exist in the target culture. Think of words like deja vu or Schadenfreude – in English we have to use the French or German word because there is no English equivalent. And there are so many other words and concepts like this that we just don’t have in English because we have no words to describe them. One of my favourite examples from German is “ausschlafen” – it literally means to sleep yourself out, i.e. sleep until you wake up naturally. As a parent, this is a concept I can get right behind and a word I feel we need in our language!

Post-edited machine translation (MTPE)

If machine translations can never match translations crafted by professional human translators, why are an increasing number of large translation agencies offering them as part of their range of services?

The first thing to note is that reputable translation agencies don’t tend to sell pure machine translations as a service – if they do, they are a translation agency you should be avoiding!

Instead, they offer post-edited machine translation services or MTPE. Post-editing machine translation means taking a translation that has been created by an automated translation tool and editing it to iron out the mistakes. 

Languages with lots of synonyms are a real headache for machine translation tools and can lead to some hilarious mistranslations:

A screenshot of a linkedin post from  Lucy Pembayun MITI A kitten-based reminder that machine translations cannot be relied upon. Happy New Year everyone! Dabei sind die Platten oder Steine in Kitten aus Reaktionsharzen verlegt und verfugt. The tiles or bricks are laid and grouted in kittens made of reaction resins.

MTPE or machine translation post-editing is designed to ensure that these often catastrophic mistakes are identified and rectified before the machine translation is delivered to the end client.

As a professional translator specialising in marketing translations and website localisation, I am an ardent critic of machine translation. Marketing texts naturally contain lots of word plays, imagery and idioms, and running an idiom like the German equivalent of “having ants in your pants” (“Hummeln im Hintern haben”) through Google Translate demonstrates what happens when you to get a machine to translate idioms:

Google translate screenshot. Left hand side has german hummeln im hintern haben English translation have bumblebees in the butt

Machine translation tools don’t do nuance, they have no respect for cultural differences and they are simply not up to the task when it comes to so many different types of translation – from brand name translation, to literary translation, to medical translations.

But there is one area where machine translation tools can be of use: technical translations written in simple language and with lots of repetitions are one of the few areas where it can make sense to use a machine translation tool. Machine translations are getting more and more sophisticated and they are now able to do a good job of translating straightforward language – so long as there are no word plays, idioms or nuance involved!

Why human translation is better than machine translation

Aside from this very specific case where post-edited machine translation can be a sensible option, human translation is always going to be better than machine translation. Languages don’t match up 1:1 – professional human translators aren’t just language experts and skilled writers, they are also highly proficient at taking concepts from one culture and conveying them in another language so they can be understood by people from a totally different culture and with a totally different frame of reference. It is quite a skill but it is one that is totally worth paying for. 

Machine translations may be free or considerably cheaper than professional translations, but the potential for serious errors in the output mean that they should be used with great caution.

Lucy LEaF blog 2020

About the Author


Lucy Pembayun is the founder of LEaF Translations and a qualified German to English translator. Specialising in marketing, website and SEO translations, Lucy spent over a decade working as a freelance translator before launching LEaF Translations back in 2017. A passionate advocate for ethical business and sustainability, Lucy recently spoke on the topic of Net Zero for Businesses at the annual Business Summit for the York and North Yorkshire region. Outside of work, Lucy enjoys exploring new places and cultures, playing and watching football, and spending time with her family and friends.