Automated, Non-native, and Native Translation — What’s the Difference?

This post is for you if you need to get your message across clearly in a foreign language. You may be a business wanting to acquire new customers abroad, an NGO aspiring to empower a community, or a politician who simply wants to negotiate an issue.

At the time of writing this post, there are three ways to reach out to people speaking a different language.

  1. Automated translation
  2. Nonnative translation
  3. Native translation

Which road should you take?

Automated Translation

This is the fastest and the least expensive way to translate tons of text in more than 100 languages, virtually covering the entire planet. Google Translate alone can instantly render your English text into 103 languages, and it is not the only free automated translation tool. There are at least half-a-dozen popular ones, including Bing Translator, Babel Fish, and Yandex Translate.

The only downside is that you would not want to use it unless your goal is to amuse or humor your clients. International Translations Limited has compiled a list of seven automated translation fails from Google. You can read their post here.

Nonnative Translation

Nonnative translation has become such a taboo that most agencies and professionals touch the subject with a 10-foot pole. We are not among them.

Depending on who is doing it, nonnative translation can be anywhere from humorous to virtually indistinguishable from professional native translation.

We have covered plenty of translation fails in a previous post. You can have a look at it here. It is safe to assume such translations are the product of poor nonnative translation.

At the opposite spectrum are people like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, arguably Kenya’s most famous author. A few years ago, he translated The Wizard of the Crow from his native Kikuyu to English. The novel is a classic.

It is not fair to say that all nonnative translation is of poor quality. Some people are equally at home with two cultures and languages. Hiring them can save you money without the quality getting hurt.

Nonnative translation can be a cost-effective substitute in technical fields, such as computing, mathematics, and astronomy. Culture plays little role in those fields. So a non-native astronomer or programmer can produce correct translations than a native humanities graduates.

Finally, nonnative translators are the only way to get things going for many language pairs, such as Punjabi-English, Igbo-English, or Wolof-French.

Native Translation

The holy grail of the translation industry, especially when the translator is also a Subject Matter Expert (SME). Native translation is the way to go for culturally sensitive subjects, such as advertising, politics, and most things related to humanities.

Although native translation tends to be more expensive than nonnative and automated translation, the rewards are equally high.


This chart sums up this week’s post.