DeepL’s Hidden Icebergs: Don’t Touch

DeepL might be a useful tool for linguists and people who understand both the source & target language very well, but it is an accident waiting to happen when people who don’t understand both languages use it for commercial translations without proper editing and verification.

Why? Because DeepL presents its results much more elegantly than for example Google Translate, yet contains under that shiny looking surface as serious mistakes as its competitors. And here is the trap: If you can’t verify the translation in both languages and with real subject knowledge, you won’t even see the hidden icebergs that are about to hit and sink your ship, because on the surface it just looks perfect.

With Google Translate we all knew that it should only be used to get the gist of a text. But with DeepL people start to think that you can trust the results as is, and put them onto your website or in your brochure. Except that you can’t. Really.

I do see a future for specialist translators here. While translators without specialisation may be pushed out of the market (or encouraged to specialise), translators with subject knowledge will be ever more in demand – to find those hidden icebergs or completely rewrite the translation. It won’t be free but certainly worth the cost.

Specific example: “unsafe to touch” vs. “nicht berührungssicher”

Now, let’s look at one specific English/German example that I came across the other day and that was so disturbing it made me write this post.

We take this exemplary source sentence in a technical user manual: When the heater is on, the LEDs on the device light up and the surface is unsafe to touch. The surface can cause burns.

And the German translation by DeepL: Wenn die Heizung eingeschaltet ist, leuchten die LEDs am Gerät auf und die Oberfläche ist nicht berührungssicher. Die Oberfläche kann Verbrennungen verursachen.

Well, sounds good, does it not? Who would doubt the output, especially if the person using DeepL does not understand both languages really well? And even German native speakers could be fooled if they have no subject knowledge. Because we don’t know what we don’t know.

Yet one look into Duden and the English/German Technik Langenscheidt Dictionary would reveal that “berührungssicher” has a very distinct meaning: something was designed in a way that no touch is possible, i. e. all-insulated, touch-proof, shockproof.

But that’s not what meant here, the source sentence is simply saying that you shouldn’t touch the surface as it’s hot and may cause burns.

Yes the translation might look somewhat close, i. e. something that is not to be touched. But “unsafe to touch” and “(not) touchproof” are not the same, one is an observation (don’t touch), the other one talks about the way something has been designed (touchproof or not touchproof).

So what do you think? Do you agree? And do you have other examples of DeepL leading us down the garden path, or onto the black ice as Germans would say? Let me know. 👇

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