Here’s why “MT” is meaningless… I really don't know what you’re talking about!

Greater than 3 minutes, my friend!

I recently attended a Facebook group live Q&A session called #AskMeAnything. An expert answered members’ questions about machine translation (MT) and I wanted to listen and learn from prospective customers. All did not go as planned…


The first few questions showed a huge disparity in members’ perceptions. Answers bounced from question to question. MT is one term but it was used with five different meanings in five different contexts within one conversation!

  • MT – a technological component
  • MT – a system
  • MT – a process
  • MT – the product from a system
  • MT – the poor quality product from a system

I was confused! Really! I make software that others call “MT” but I was confused. If I didn’t know what he was talking about, how can someone who’s not on the technology side of this business learn anything?

Seeking clarity

Then a member asked, “If a client asks whether you use MT, what do you suggest replying?” I broke my silence and asked the obvious question, “What is the definition of ‘machine translation?’ I think in a contract, it’s important to define the terms.” The expert’s reply? “In an agency context I’m not sure it is a good idea to pick apart legal documents from agencies.” ––– What?!

How can we adhere to a contract if the terminology isn’t clearly defined? But this Q&A session wasn’t negotiating a contract. It was supposed to be an opportunity to learn about MT. We’re in a business where words have meaning (Pssst… really!). I realized I had unintentionally picked a fight. I did my best to quietly exit the session and decided to write this post.

Terminology is king of the hill

Let’s think about this terminology challenge in a context outside of translation services. An internal combustion engine (“motor” for short) is our example. That motor can be engineered to power a lawnmower or a Mercedes or a bus. So, let’s zoom in on a simple lawnmower.

I filled my lawnmower with gas, started the motor and cut the lawn. I really liked the look of my lawn, but dreaded the next task – to rake the cuttings. First, I’ll drive to the grocery in my Mercedes to buy a cold beer and hope I’m not hit by a bus.

Hold on… we have seven terms:

  • motor – technological component
  • lawnmower – system
  • cut – process
  • lawn – the product from a system
  • clippings – poor quality product
  • Mercedes – changed system context altogether
  • bus – another system context change

Rewriting our example with the MT uni-term approach to terminology, we have:

I filled my motor with gas, started the motor and motored the motor. I really liked the look of my motor, but dreaded the next task – to rake the motors. First, I’ll drive to the grocery in my motor to buy a cold beer and hope I’m not hit by a motor.

Definition anyone?

Despite these confusions, I won’t offer definitions as long as prevailing MT environment fields the questions with the same respect as Donald Trump fielding fake news questions and I must defend myself like Bill Clinton did with “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

Instead, I offer this presumed meaning from the 1966 ALPAC report (page 19) that seems to be the prevailing definition among our MT experts:

“Machine Translation” presumably means going by algorithm from machine-readable source text to useful target text, without recourse to human translation or editing.

Let’s rephrase that without the government-speak:

MT is software that automatically converts source language text into useful target language text without human translators.

Not Machine Translation

We live in an environment where simple questions provoke indignation. Experts avoid the prevailing MT definition in the company of professional translators. Until such time we can agree to define “machine translation” and openly discuss it as professionals, I maintain that “Quite simply, Slate Desktop is not machine translation.”

You can read what Slate Desktop IS on this site’s product page and support site.

Tom Hoar

About Tom Hoar

Language technology veteran serving translation professionals for 30 years with technologies that augment translators from IBM Selectric II typewriters to dictation and translation software.

2 thoughts on “Here’s why “MT” is meaningless… I really don't know what you’re talking about!

  1. Hi Tom, your point of view is definitely interesting and I wish I had the chance to attend that session you mentioned because there is an evident need for clarity on the subject of machine translation and I am no expert myself. I have studied the principles and history of machine translation at university and I agree with you that Slate Desktop is not a machine translation system in the way we have learned to know and use MTs until today. I guess that what can be achieved and developed from the main concept of MT is part of the wonders of technology, and any improvement of the translation workflow is welcome, but you are right in saying that we should call things by their name in the first place. Only then can we learn to master them.

    1. Thanks Eleonora.

      I like John and we need to remember he’s a small agency with an agency perspective. He clearly showed his colors when he said translators shouldn’t “pick apart legal documents from agencies.” I’m not a translator. Heck, my business is small, just slightly larger than “freelancer” status. Our contracts are the only mechanisms that protects us from the big guys. Please, please, please… pick apart your draft contracts! I had to excuse myself before I exploded.

      I’d like to think that SD is “the end of the world as we know it.” That session was the first time I “came out of the closet” to say that SD is not MT. I’ve wanted to for a long time, but never had the courage. My irritation released my inhibitions. Someone must have been listening because, over the weekend, our website traffic quintupled — all traceable back to Facebook. Maybe SD should have come out of the closet as “Not MT” a long time ago!

      I abbreviated this TOM article. I screened it through Dmitry for his feedback whether it is too harsh. Thank you, Dmitry for your encouraging reply. I honored his request to remove the more commercial aspects of the full version. As a result, The full version is our website with a comparison between what MT “IS” and what SD “IS NOT.” You can find the full article here: link to

      Oh, one last thing. “Studying” isn’t the same as “doing.” “Study the principles of balance” is different than “learning the distinction of balance.” Studying is easy and gets you nowhere. Hopping on a bicycle for the first time gives you some scratches and maybe a few scars, but the view while riding uncovers the end of the world as we knew it (on our feet)! REM: link to

      Please tell your friends and colleagues to link this article to spread the word and help TOM.

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