A Coffee With Our Editors, Unpacking Quality and Business Tips
Since its first tentative steps in the 1950s, machine translation has made tremendous advancements. However, when it comes to delivering professional translation services, nothing matches the quality of machine translation refined by a human touch.
At the heart of Unbabel’s Language Operations platform, a community of 100,000 enrolled multilingual editors — comprised of native speakers, linguists, subject matter experts, and professional translators — works to polish outbound translations across 130+ language pairs and ensure the delivery of native-level content. Our proprietary, AI-powered machine translation is also continuously learning from their feedback, which means that the quality of translations keeps improving over time, and the AI requires less input to achieve human authenticity at speed and scale.
To uncover the synergy between human translators and MT, and understand how a human-in-the-loop approach elevates quality translations, we sat down with two of our global editors for a (virtual) coffee.
Yi: I translate news releases almost daily, as well as a decent amount of in-flight entertainment content. I also work on internal communications for industrial and manufacturing clients with establishments in China, who require documents to be translated for their local staff.
Chiara: I mostly receive translation requests for customer support emails related to the service industry, IT, or the financial industry, such as banks or online payment facilitators. I also work on operating manuals, FAQs for websites, and sporadic news releases.
Yi: I would say that you definitely need adequate command of your language pairs, and gaining this kind of expertise is a long-term effort. As a linguist, your knowledge and translation skills accumulate over time. You also need to be detail-oriented — careful of typos and misinterpretations — to truly guarantee quality translation work.
As for whether human translation is more of an art or a science, I would say it’s a balance of both. Passion for a specific subject definitely plays a part, and I do have favorite tasks. For example, I like translating show synopses because I find the content entertaining, and I often stumble into shows that I’ve just watched with my daughters. But when you’re a professional, you’ll deliver high-quality, accurate translations regardless of the type of content you’re assigned.
“Passion definitely plays a part, but when you’re a professional, you’ll deliver high-quality, accurate translations regardless of the type of content you’re assigned.”
Chiara: I agree. There are a few long-term clients that I particularly enjoy working for, because, as a linguist, I feel like I’ve grown alongside them and we have an established relationship. Of course, when the content I’m translating is personally relevant (for example, if I’m already a customer of that company), I also tend to work faster — as I’m closer to the client’s ideals from the get-go, and, in a sense, translating their content feels like I’m doing something for myself as a customer as well.
“If I’m already a customer of that company, in a sense, translating their content feels like I’m doing something for myself as a customer as well.”
Taking on new clients can be more challenging, mainly because of the initial lack of specific vocabulary — after all, I don’t know the entire breadth of the English language. Every company is unique, and it can take time to learn a client’s quirks and glossary. So, if I’m translating a robotics manual or something highly specialized, I will need references, and the learning curve will be steeper. But over the last six years, translating unfamiliar content has enabled me to improve my translation skills and gain a wider vocabulary.
Yi: Personally, I don’t feel like we have to change the tone that much to make it appropriate for a Chinese audience. We also receive instructions from the client on how closely they want the translated content to stick to the source text, including what liberties we’re allowed to take to make the translation sound natural.
I think once you’ve read the text in the source language, you’ll automatically get a feel for how formal or informal it’s trying to be, and then work on it accordingly through the lens of your target language.
Chiara: In my experience, most companies tend to be quite ‘formal’ in their informality — and in Italian, this kind of register can come across as unnatural. Obviously, what we do as editors is translation work, not transcreation, so we have to preserve the meaning of the source text.
However, I do try to simplify sentences that, translated word-for-word, would feel overly flattering, oddly intimate, or stilted — because as a customer of many international brands myself, I always notice when machine translations sound off. Even something as small as a verb or a poorly placed exclamation mark can make the difference. The essence of the message remains the same, but I try to enable companies to really speak Italian, even if they don’t.
“I try to enable companies to really speak Italian, even if they don’t.”
Yi: Having a glossary makes a huge difference. Some words can have multiple interpretations, so when the client tells us the specific way in which they want certain terms translated, it definitely saves time. However, companies sometimes ‘abandon’ their glossaries or give up on updating them regularly, which can make our job harder.
Chiara: Agreed. Sometimes you find yourself working with a glossary that is three or four years old, so it’s no longer a good reference. To me, a glossary is a living creature: If you don’t take care of it, it’s going to wither and die.
After working with clients for a while, you may no longer need to look up most terminologies on the glossary. But when a company is constantly launching new features or products, maintaining the glossary is a must.
“A glossary is a living creature. If you don’t take care of it, it’s going to wither and die.”
Yi: I prefer working for companies that integrate the latest technology into their translation process, because it helps with my accuracy and productivity. When I first started working in the language services industry, we completed our tasks manually on Word files — we basically had to type everything in. It was slow and inefficient, with a higher risk of typos.
“When I first started working in the language services industry, we completed our tasks manually on Word files. It was a slow and inefficient process, with a higher risk of typos.”
I would definitely say that the integration of AI and automation into their workflows is beneficial to both translation companies and their clients. And leveraging automated translation doesn’t exclude employing professional human translators or proofreaders to ensure the highest quality. Through machine learning, the AI will constantly learn from their input, eventually needing less human intervention and smaller tweaks.
Chiara: Having worked with other translation management systems, I find that Unbabel’s current translation system is simpler and more intuitive. Tight turnaround times wouldn’t be feasible if we had to type each word of the translated text or if we didn’t trust the machine to have picked the correct terms for that specific translation. The system works because there’s a complete collaboration between the machine and the human translator.
“Tight turnaround times wouldn’t be feasible if we didn’t trust the machine to do the groundwork for us. The system works because there’s a complete collaboration between the machine and the human translator.”
Chiara: I do, and, full disclosure, I myself am gay, so language inclusivity is a topic that I feel quite strongly about. It’s a fun type of challenge, because while some of the most used terms in our vocabulary are gendered, there are less-known synonyms in Italian that aren’t and that can solve this issue. As a linguist, it’s satisfying to go back and find a less common word that still delivers the original meaning but isn’t gendered.
“I would say that it’s a fun type of challenge. As a linguist, it’s satisfying to go back and find a less common word that still delivers the original meaning and isn’t gendered.”
For example, in many customer support emails, the agent will write I am glad, which normally you’d translate as Sono lieto. But there is another adjective that, unlike lieto, doesn’t imply gender and carries the same meaning: Felice. So, in this instance, I would translate I am glad as Sono felice.
Yi: In Chinese, we actually don’t encounter this kind of issue, as the language doesn't assign gender to nouns like Italian or Spanish do. But it’s interesting to see how different each language is, and how other professional translators handle these challenges.
Yi: I would say that the mechanism we have at Unbabel works really well. My main recommendation for businesses would be to always consider whether cheaper is actually better. It’s easy to find less costly ‘solutions’ out there, but companies should always evaluate whether such solutions would be a good fit for the type of content they want to translate, or if they’d be likely to cause quality issues and additional costs down the line.
Chiara: My job would be easier if all decisions on syntax, grammar, and register were taken upstream — otherwise, I have to take time to check that the pronouns don’t randomly switch from a formal register to an informal one. For example, for a while, a prominent, global toy production business handled customer support emails with a very formal register — even though their product was aimed at children, and their tone of voice is naturally informal.
Yi: To ensure they have what it takes: Working as a professional translator is more than just translating one language into another. It’s a very delicate task. It fosters cultural exchanges and helps people from different cultural backgrounds understand each other, which I think is crucial. We’re not just a walking dictionary.
“We’re not just a walking dictionary. You need to be willing to keep learning as you translate, because language is a living, breathing thing.”
As a professional translator, you have to be passionate about what you do, you have to develop the right skills, and you need to be willing to keep learning as you translate — because language is a living thing. It’s always evolving.
Chiara: Exactly. To me, being a professional translator is all about connecting cultures and easing communications. No company can be completely aware of every custom across every market they serve, which can be especially challenging in situations where clients become upset or frustrated during a customer support exchange. So consider it like working at the UN — ensuring the right language and tone are in place to de-escalate situations and maintain peace.
I would say aspiring translators shouldn’t romanticize the career, as normally translation projects aren’t that creative. But at the end of the day, being a translator is still satisfying: It’s about helping others.
“At the end of the day, being a translator is about helping others.”