Automated Translation—Good Solution or Not?

What It Is

As government Web managers, many of us are tasked with installing a “magic button” solution on our websites to make them multilingual. If time or resources are particularly limited, we may consider an automated translation software such as Google Translate or another machine translation software—commercial or open source. But is machine translation the solution?

Specific Requirements

Government agencies are required to improve access to services for people with limited English proficiency. OMB Policies for Federal Public Websites states that "your agency is already required to provide appropriate access for people with limited English proficiency by implementing Department of Justice guidance for Executive Order 13166, "Improving Access to Services for People with Limited English Proficiency" (PDF, 6 pages, August 2000). Agencies must determine whether any individual document on their Federal agency public website(s) requires translation." Additionally, in February 2011, the Department of Justice issued a memo to federal agencies reaffirming the mandates of Executive Order 13166 (PDF, 1.5 MB, 6 pages, February 2011). The memo includes specific steps to help agencies comply with their responsibilities in this area.

How to Implement

There is no easy solution to the challenge of translating one language to another. Software created by linguists in reputable institutions can be considered a tool to perform basic work. However, automated translation is only a first step that can save time and money, but it should not be used alone. Here's why:

  • All translations, adaptations, or localizations need the editing touch of a qualified translator/communicator who will communicate with the agency's voice.
  • No machine can fully replace a human being for the interpretation of different and subtle meanings of a word within different contexts.
  • As content managers of government websites, we should advocate the concept of communication rather than translation to convey meaning.
  • The message needs to remain intact when it passes from the source language to the target language—the work of a translator is never about translating words but rather about deconstructing messages.
  • Machine translation dynamically generates pages making them invisible to search engines. When a person is searching for information to accomplish a task in a language other than English, your agency's website will not come up in the search results because that content does not exist.

Some government websites are currently using Google Translate. This is not a best practice and should not be used as a sole solution. Consider the implications of a poor or inaccurate translation of health, financial, or legal information found on a government website. What is the point of having a button to translate a website if the information translated is unusable? Now consider the negative impact that could have on your agency.

The "best practice” is to do the work the right way. If resources are limited, start small. Identify top tasks and translate that content, and then build from that.

Accuracy of Translation Trials with Google Translate

The Department of Health and Human Services and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality commissioned a study to assess the accuracy of Google translate on data extraction from non-English languages. This is the only formal study we’ve seen evaluating the accuracy of translation of this tool. Results show limited accuracy from various foreign languages to English, which cast doubt on the accuracy of translations from English to the same foreign languages.

Use of Disclaimers for Machine-Translated Websites

Some view disclaimers as the solution to justify an imperfect translation. Ask yourself and your managers: What are we trying to achieve?

If an agency provides imperfect information but includes a disclaimer, the agency is essentially saying that it cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information they have provided. If so, how is this:

  • fulfilling a need?
  • fulfilling our mission?
  • serving the public?

Consider how you would react if you were reading information that had a disclaimer that said, very politely, that the agency can’t guarantee the integrity of the translation and, therefore, can’t guarantee the accuracy of the information it is giving you.

A disclaimer on translated content works for the agency, but it does not work for the person trying to accomplish a task.


  •, the Spanish language counterpart of, has very strict policies and will not link to a machine-translated version of the website.
  • CDC en español, the official Web portal in Spanish for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has a dedicated staff of translators.
  • MedlinePlus in Spanish provides comprehensive health information in Spanish.



Content Lead: Laura Godfrey
Page Reviewed/Updated: October 1, 2012

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