Human or Machine Translation? Survey Reveals EU SME Preferences by Use Case

Roberto Viola, Director-General of DG Communications Networks, Content and Technology

A survey of over 2,800 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) published by the European Commission revealed nearly 40% of respondents had not used a machine translation tool prior to the study.

Moreover, while an overwhelming majority of SMEs still preferred human translation for business activities, such as negotiating contracts and dealing with the public sector in another country, over 70% said machine translation was nonetheless useful for their business.

The survey was conducted in line with the rollout of the Commission’s online machine translation service, eTranslation, to SMEs. First launched in November 2017, eTranslation was created for EU governments, universities, and projects under the Connecting Europe Facility, as well as SMEs.

Data gathering was done between December 2019 to March 2020 and led by DG CNECT with the help of DG GROW. (DG CNECT is the Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology; DG GROW stands for Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs). 

Prior to the publication of the complete survey results on June 9, 2020, Philippe Gelin, Head of Sector Multilingualism at the European Commission, discussed data from the survey during a stakeholder consultation in February 2020.

The survey garnered 2,868 responses from SMEs operating in Europe, majority of which were from the Manufacturing sector (28%), followed by Professional, Scientific, and Technical (11.7%), Other Services (11%), Wholesale and Retail (9.6%), and ICT (7.7%). Other sectors made up less than 5% of the total number of respondents.

Asked how many documents they expected to translate each month if they were provided with “free, secure, automated translation,” the majority of SME respondents said they would use machine translation (MT) on 3–10 documents (37%) or 11–50 documents (33%).

“This was later confirmed by the pilot testing [of eTranslation] which showed an average monthly usage of 5 documents per SME,” the study said. The Commission pilot tested eTranslation with 635 SMEs representing various sectors from 25 countries, and said “83% found eTranslation usable and 50% expected to use it every day or every week.”

The majority of SMEs regarded Social Media (80%), Gathering Information (70%), and Chatbots (60%) as the main use of MT. Most respondents preferred human translation when negotiating and signing contracts, resolving conflicts around commercial transactions, dealing with the public sector abroad, and even conducting marketing and promotional activities.

When deciding whether or not to use MT, the most important factor for SMEs was Accuracy, followed by Ease of Use, Free of Charge, and Speed. Least important was Support.

Europe’s SMEs also showed interest in language technologies other than MT, with Spell Check and Grammar Tools attracting the highest, and Speech Recognition drawing the least interest.

Elaborating on this interest, a number of SMEs singled out features or tools as being necessary for business. These were “domain adaptation along with thematic dictionaries for various sectors (e.g., health, medical, food, maritime, ICT, chemical, legal, geoinformatics, plastic, cinema, advertisement, communication, creative industry); speech recognition tool (also for languages currently not supported by any provider); automated website translation; more languages for automated translation (e.g., Asian languages or Turkish).”

SMEs said English, German, and French were the top three languages they needed followed by Spanish, Russian, Italian, and Chinese. Most of the SMEs surveyed came from France, Poland, and Portugal. According to the study, “the diversity of the results [confirms] the broad European linguistic landscape, highlighting the continuous challenge the Single Market and especially its SMEs are confronted with.”

A free MT tool such as eTranslation would, therefore, place all businesses “on an equal footing, without penalising those working in languages with smaller populations or linguistic markets where language combinations may be harder or more costly to acquire.”

Another survey has been scheduled for early 2021 to collect user experience data on and suggested improvements to eTranslation.

Image: Roberto Viola, Director-General of DG Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CNECT)