Free Translation Challenge: Sneak Peek

by Translation Guy on November 28, 2011

Translation should be free! Or at least that’s what everyone not in the translation business seems to believe. But since it is how I make my living, I am dead set against it. Yet I’ve been giving away free translation for years, and not to especially good causes either, other than ‘cause some Web surfers managed to navigate to the right page at

When we started the service several years back, it was no surprise that free translation proved to be a very popular feature of our website. My brilliant idea was that those people taking advantage of our free service would feel such gratitude that they would naturally start using us for paid translation. But in years of operation we never managed an upsell more than a couple of times, even though the number of words of free translation we processed dwarfed our human translation volume. It seems foolish to admit it now, but I was genuinely surprised to discover that when someone does a search for “free translation” they really, really meant it. Free really means free.

So, when we did the redesign of the site a few years ago, we never got around to putting the free translation tool back, since we couldn’t prove any bang for the buck.

But in the absence of the free translation tool, the traffic reports provide mute testimony to how deeply we’ve disappointed thousands and thousands of our non-customers who still visit our site to look for free translation. So we’ve decided to repeat our mistake and bring free translation back to the site. I call it vision.  Gail, our controller, is calling it something else, but she won’t tell me what.

Since hope springs eternal, we’ll try some upsell, but our goal this time is to get a better understanding of how to enhance the value of on-demand translation systems and learn more about user behavior.

My latest theory is that the big problem with machine translation is not the quality of the output, which is generally acceptable to most (or it wouldn’t be so enormously popular) but the singular way in which all tools share the same restrictions on validation and quality assurance.  Now,  the engine producers may know something we don’t, but we got a couple of marketing objectives that will justify the investment until we answer that question. Or should I say, until you answer that question.

We’ve taken the three most popular translation tools on the Web, Google, Bing, and Systrans, and mashed them all together, so that when you press the translate button you get three different translations to choose from. Since we are pretty sure that most users of on-line translation tools can read the target language most of the time, that will allow bilinguals or people translating into their native language to select the preferred version, and to provide a thumbs up or down on all three.

Those scores will be published in real time, to provide a general guide to mon0glot users on which engines generally produce the most satisfactory results. We pay close attention to translation engine quality, so I have a pretty good idea of what tool will come out on top, (no spoilers here!) but we also know that the best is not always the best, and those other two engines do a much better translation job than the best sometimes, just at a lower frequency. So for the astute user of on-demand free machine translation users, three translations will always be better than one.

And for those who don’t have a clue to the quality of translation in a target they don’t understand, we have a back translation feature, so you can translate the machine translation back to its original language to see how it made it through the laundry. Shades of Translation Party as back translation plays the whisper game into the translation ground? Sure, but what the hell. It’s free, right? And actually surprisingly insightful, since in our testing we determined that a back translation provides clues to tell you how the original translation went bad.

And then we pitch a human check for a price, which we expect will do very little business, but is offered as part of the package (coming soon), thus providing a free (almost) promise to provide  the best on-demand free translation service on the Web, as we are all about being the best, even when we have to give it away.

So please bookmark it. Free Translation Challenge is now in its “Translation Guy Reader’s Special Edition” iteration, where we get your feedback on ways to improve it. So please, if you don’t like it, tell us why. Wilber, this means you. I’ll keep you all posted on our findings and improvements.


  1. Just in time for Christmas. I think I will translate all of my Christmas cards into some other language. Thanks for the new site.

  2. Anne says:

    I love the back translation feature. I am a beginning Spanish teacher in a high school and I am going to share this with my students and have them try it out on some of their own work. We (our they) will see how well they are learning. Thanks.

  3. Fritzie says:

    Out of 10 simple translations, Systran didn’t do well, but Google didn’t win everyone. Bing actually did better on one of the 10 than Google. If, and when, I have something bigger to translate I will put my money on Google, but who knows, Bing may take the prize.

  4. Lortab 7.5mg says:

    Please, do tell what Gail is calling it! I can only imagine :) Keep up the good work. It really is appreciated.

  5. Gordon Wrenn says:

    Wow! Now I can find out what all of those Slovak Christmas and birthday cards say from my wife’s family. Thanks so much!

  6. We need more businesses like yours in this world. Free ones that is!

  7. Tracy Sparks says:

    I just bookmarked the site and played around with it a bit. Very cool and very fast. Thanks for my new toy. I plan to use it often with my students.

  8. I tried it with only one word; bonjour. All three translated to hello in english, but when I translated back, Bing translated hello to salut while the other two translated back to bonjour. Interesting.

  9. I just translated Happy birthday in French, Hatian Creole, and German. Now, if you could just get your site to speak the translation I could learn a new language! Seriously, this is really a good site and I am definitely going to spread the word. Thanks.

  10. Captain says:

    Such a nice idea. Free. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all worked at a job we enjoyed and did things for others for free? I’m proud of anyone who offers a service without expecting compensation in return. My hat is off to you!

  11. Samson says:

    Not sure how many people will opt for the human check for a small price (probably very few) but it wouldn’t be a bad idea especially if you don’t know one of the languages.

  12. Daniel Myers says:

    Interesting. I too just did a single word translation and Google nailed it while Bing just gave me back the original word and Systran said the language pair not supported. Google wins!

  13. Dorothea says:

    I recently paid over $200 to get 2 documents translated from Chinese to English for my immigration paperwork to Canada. I wish I would have know about this a month ago! If I have to get anything else translated I will definitely try this and I will get the human translation for just 7 cents per word. At that rate, I should have only paid about 30 bucks for mine last month.

    • Ken says:

      $30 for a translation you couldn’t use, Dorothea. It’s a one-pass, un-certified translation. You paid the going rate for service you required, so while you got your wallet emptied, you don’t have to feel cheated.

  14. Ryan Garwood says:

    What you are offering is wonderful, but if something is free, I don’t think you should get your hopes up for much human checking where they would have to pay, because then it wouldn’t be free! I see a lot of free websites out there, guitar lessons and such, where the information (service) is free, and they ask for donations. I always wonder who actually pays (donates) when they are getting it for free anyway.

    • Ken says:

      Sort of like marriage and milking cows, right?

  15. Bob Denton says:

    Very nice. I like what you have here. I hope it is a permanent site and not just something that is being used to generate data. I can see this being very useful to many people and I certainly hope you get increased business because of it. All good things should go rewared, right?

    • Ken says:

      Sounds like you’re going to be my first subscriber, Bob.

  16. rylo says:

    That’s so cool how the translation can be translated back and you can see if it matches the original. It’s kind of like checking you work in math class!

    • Ken says:

      Exactly how I used to check my math homework. I think that’s why I ended up in the language business.

  17. Jerry says:

    I have used a different online machine translation program in the past at my school (I work in the guidance department). We occaisionally get students from somewhere that we don’t have a person to translate for them. I haven’t always had the best of luck with them, but it’s nice to know there is another option for me. As soon as I have something to translate at work I will let you know how it works. thanks

  18. It’s true that MT is quick and easy, but it does have it’s restrictions. I prefer a real person with language skills translating for me and having another double check the work. Takes more time, costs more money, but I feel good about what I get in return. Still, I think this free site is a great idea and I hope it works out.

  19. Is all you charge is 7 cents a word? Seems pretty cheap for translating a document. I can’t see why more people wouldn’t want to just spring for the human check if the document wasn’t too big.

  20. Game on! My money is on Google. I believe you said before that the one with the biggest serves wins. But you are right, even smaller, slower ones can have a better stranslation every once in a while.

  21. Gary Cohen says:


    This is great! You are the guy to make this happen. Thank you for drawing our attention to it.

  22. Bugbear says:

    I’ve actually written my own free MT system (it’s really simple in Javascript). Whatever the input text, it “translates” it to some random text in the target language (and when back-translating, it always uses the original input text). Surprise surprise, all users (to date) have rated it 100% accurate – they love it! The load on the server is *really* low too. Is this not the easiest way to keep millions of monolingual morons^H^H^H^H^H customers happy?

    • Ken says:

      Bugbear, it’s visionaries like you who are changing the face of the translation business. I salute you!

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