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How Good is Machine Translation? Real-World Examples

Still feeling curious about machine translation? This week, I will analyze some real-world examples of machine translations to pull back the curtain on machine translation quality. I will put a variety of texts through one of the major translation software programs in use today: DeepL. This post may get a little long, so feel free to skip to the analyses of your favorite text types. Let’s go!

1. Example from Academia: My Master’s Thesis

The first stop is the world of academia, where we will have DeepL divine the meaning of my master’s thesis on linguistic code-switching. This paragraph describes a class that I recorded so I could later analyze linguistic code-switching in foreign language classrooms. It was originally written in German and has been translated into English by DeepL.

Er hat nicht in Deutschland gelebt, sondern hat Deutsch an der Universität gelernt. Er ist deshalb als ein gelernter zweisprachiger Sprecher zu betrachten. Dieses Mal wurde die normalerwiese geschlossene Lerngruppe durch eine Frau der Universitätsverwaltung unterbrochen. Sie wurde auch aufgenommen. Ihre Muttersprache ist unbekannt, aber sie spricht fließend Englisch und durch die explizite Thematisierung ihrer Deutschkenntnisse in der Aufnahme bestätigt sie, dass sie kein Deutsch versteht.

He has not lived in Germany, but learned German at university. He can therefore be categorized as a trained bilingual speaker. This time the normally closed study group was interrupted by a woman from the university administration. She was also admitted. Her mother tongue is unknown, but she is fluent in English and by explicitly mentioning her knowledge of German in the recording she confirms that she does not understand German.


As you can see in the sentences that are not written in bold, DeepL has done a good job of translating the simple, conversation text describing the person’s linguistic learning experience. It even does a good job of translating the sentence about the woman from the university administration. Then it ventures into murky waters. What does “She was also admitted.” mean? A trip the mental hospital perhaps? The German says “Sie wurde auch aufgenommen.” and aufgenommen can have several meanings depending on context. It can mean “included, collected, admitted, absorbed, incorporated, recorded, supported, sustained, sensed, surveyed”. There isn’t much context in the sentence here, so it is the overall context of the document that determines the meaning. I was recording the students, so this sentence is simply saying that she was included in the recording and the proper translation would be: “She was also recorded.”.

The second bolded sentence gets closer to the original meaning, but is definitely off. “Mother tongue” may be a correct translation of “Muttersprache”, but it is less common and sounds somewhat dramatic and old-fashioned to me. It is also a literal translation of the German word. “Native language” is used more frequently to mean the same thing and would be a better translation in this context. Later in the same sentence, “by explicitly mentioning her knowledge of German” is also quite problematic. It gives the general gist of the German phrase, but it does not convey the German tone, emphasis, and meaning accurately in English. I would have translated the sentence as follows: “Her native language is unknown, but she is fluent in English and, by making explicit reference to her linguistic knowledge of German in the recording, she confirms her lack of German comprehension skills.”

2. Example from Advertising: www.neublck.de

This is what happens when you let machine translation loose on German slang. It is an example from an advertising agency’s website and has been translated from German into English by DeepL.

Deine Firma ist der Burner, aber das weiß noch keiner?

Your company is the burner, but nobody knows that yet?


It would take far too long to analyze an entire paragraph, so one sentence will have to suffice. This is sure to have your English-speaking clients scratching their heads. The burner? Is that good or bad? In the German phrase, “Burner” is a direct translation that has been loaned from English and is being used to express the German slang word “Brenner”. When you say “das ist der Brenner”, you are generally saying something like “that’s the bomb” or “that’s the cat’s meow”. I would have translated the sentence something like “Is your company the bomb/cat’s meow, but nobody knows yet? If the client wanted something even more catchy, it could be “Is your company the bomb, but clients haven’t quite caught on yet?”

3. Example from Technical Documentation: bedienungsanleitung.de

Here we have some technical specifications written for consumers and posted on a website describing a food processor. This is one of the fields I consider machine translation to do somewhat of a good job in. The text has been translated from German into English by DeepL.

Die deutsche Gebrauchsanleitung des BOSCH MUM4427 Küchenmaschine Weiß 500 Watt beschreibt die erforderlichen Anweisungen für den richtigen Gebrauch des Produkts Haushalt & Wohnen - Küchenkleingeräte - Küchenmaschinen. 

Produktbeschreibung: Multi-motion-drive Dynamisches dreidimensionales Rührsystem Kunststoff-Rührschüssel Für bis zu 1 kg Mehl + Zutaten (max. Teigmenge 2,7 kg) inkl. transparentem Spritzschutzdeckel mit Einfüllöffnung. 

The German instruction manual of the BOSCH MUM4427 Kitchen Machine White 500 Watt describes the necessary instructions for the correct use of the product Household & Home - Small kitchen appliances - Food processors.

Product description: Multi-motion-drive Dynamic three-dimensional mixing system Plastic mixing bowl For up to 1 kg flour + ingredients (max. dough quantity 2.7 kg) incl. transparent splash guard lid with filling opening. 


This technical translation is ok, but also not as good as expected. Two different translations are used for the same word – Küchenmaschine. It is translated alternately as “kitchen machine” or “food processor” throughout the document. This is a mistake a good human translator would not make, since even a cursory glance at the illustration accompanying the original document clearly indicates it is a food processor.

The entire first paragraph, although grammatically correct, is awkward and not written in the typical writing style of a native English speaker. The copious use of “of” and “for” found in German is translated directly into English, whereas a good translator would have streamlined the sentence to sound more natural and idiomatic. It also seems unlikely that an English speaker would say that an instruction manual “describes the necessary instructions” as a literal interpretation of the German states. If someone asked me to ensure this document is stylistically flawless and completely accurate, I would advise them to have it translated from scratch. It isn’t even worth editing the machine translation.

Here is my rewrite:

The English translation of the instruction manual for the BOSCH MUM4427 500-watt white food processor contains important instructions on how to use the product properly Household & Home – Small Kitchen Devices – Food Processors.

It is also important to note that the “Einfüllöffnung” of a food processor is not usually referred to as a “filling opening” in English-language marketing from similar companies. A good human translator would have chosen “feed chute” instead. I also find the translation of “Rührschüssel” as “mixing bowl” questionable. Most English-language documents describing the same component simply refer to it as a “bowl”. This is a place where a good human translator would most likely consult with the client to see if they want their term to be more specific than usual.

There you have it! Machine translation is much better than before, but human translators are still best at producing completely accurate, idiomatic language.

If you are interested in reading more, click here to read a fascinating new study that has just been published as well.

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