A guide to the three main types of translation

Most people assume they know how translation works. You take the words from one language and make them understandable in another. Sure, there are a few hurdles to achieving solid understanding, like idioms and differing cultural knowledge bases, but it should be a fairly simple process.

Then you inquire about having content translated. And you realize it’s not at all simple. Suddenly, acronyms are flying at you from all sides. HT. PEMT. MT. What? Someone call a translator!

In this series, we’ll break down machine translation, post-edited machine translation and human translation into their simplest definitions, and show you how they work in real-world contexts, so you can choose the right solution and vendor for your project.

The three main types of translation, translated: HT, PEMT, MT. If you don’t speak fluent acronymese, these can throw you. Let us introduce you to these terms in their simplest forms.

Human Translation (HT)

HT is the oldest form of translation, relying solely on human intelligence to convert one way of saying things to another. It also remains the highest quality form of translation, because no machine can quite capture the nuances of language, meaning and culture as well as a professional, experienced human translator. However, technological innovation hasn’t left human translation behind. Instead, it has taken it to a whole new level with crowd systems.

Here is how a crowd system works. In a translation agency, a traditional HT process would include full-time or freelance translators working alone or in small groups to manually manage files. However, scaling can be problematic with large projects, which is why technology-leveraged “crowd” systems use thousands of translators’ working simultaneously on digital texts within a platform that coordinates and manages the project. Crowd techniques not only solve the scalability problem, they also reduce the cost of human translation.

Machine Translation (MT)

MT, at its most basic, is what Google Translate does—it’s a software-based process that translates content from one language to another. The problems arise (as anyone who has used Google Translate knows) when words have multiple meanings, or different connotations. Linguistic quality and accuracy vary depending on the translation software and how well it’s been tuned (and you can do substantially better than Google Translate).

The main benefit is that a machine can do in minutes what would take a human translator hours, which makes this the least expensive translation method. But, you know what they say: you get what you pay for.

Post-Edited Machine Translation (PEMT)

Often, PEMT is used to bridge the gap between the speed of machine translation and the quality of human translation, as translators review, edit and improve machine-translated texts. PEMT services cost more than plain machine translations but less than 100% human translation, especially since the post-editors don’t have to be fluently bilingual—they just have to be skilled proofreaders with some experience in the language and target region.

Successful translation is about more than just the words, which is why we advocate for not just human translation by skilled linguists, but for translation by people deeply familiar with the cultures they’re writing for. Life experience, study and the knowledge that only comes from living in a geographic region can make the difference between words that are understandable and language that is capable of having real, positive impact. 

Once you’ve figured out which type of translation you’re looking for, you’ll need to approach some vendors. Check out our article on important questions to ask translation vendors to help you get the most out of your first forays into the world of professional translation. You can also follow us on Twitter at @Lionbridge for all the latest on translation and localization.


Lauren Van Mullem

The author

Lauren Van Mullem

Lauren assists in content production for Gengo's marketing team. As a former food and travel writer, she has experience communicating with all kinds of people from around the world and believes in celebrating different cultures through understanding them.


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