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"Automatic translation" or "machine translation" systems have been available for a number of years. The underlying assumption is that a computer can translate as well as a human translator.

We have recently tried out two machine translation systems available on the internet. We tested their ability to translate two short texts: one financial, the other legal.

First, here is the original French financial text we submitted for translation:

"Le résultat net progresse de 48 % mais le BPA de 27 % seulement du fait d'exceptionnels élevés. Le résultat net devrait dépasser € 243 million en 2003, et le BPA € 23."

And here is the correct translation:

"Net earnings went up 48% but EPS only rose by 27% due to high exceptionals. We expect net earnings to exceed € 243 million in 2003, and EPS € 23."

Some definitions, for non-financial readers:

Résultat net (net earnings): income after taxation recorded by a company at the end of the financial year.

BPA - "benefice par actions" (EPS – earnings per share): net earnings divided by the number of outstanding shares of common stock.

Exceptionnels (exceptionals): income earned or expenditure spent on transactions that are not part of a company's usual business operations. For example, if a company sells a subsidiary for € 1 million, it will record an exceptional profit or income of € 1 million at the end of the year.

First machine translation:

"The net income increases by 48 % but the BPA of 27 % only because of exceptional high. Should the net income exceed? 243 million in 2003, and the BPA? 23"

Second machine translation:

"The net result progresses of 48% but the BPA of 27% only owing to exceptional students. The net result should surpass € 243 million in 2003, and the BPA € 23."


  • Both systems failed to recognize and translate the abbreviation "BPA" (bénéfice par action = EPS).

  • Both also translated "exceptionnels" as an adjective rather than a noun – with the second system then introducing a totally irrelevant noun ("students"), making the entire sentence nonsensical.

  • Both translations also contain grammatical errors (of/by).
In the next instalment of this quick study, we'll show you the result of machine translation on a short legal text. Even better!

We then decided to see whether the systems coped better with a short legal text. In fact, as you will see, the results were even worse, with the machines producing completely meaningless sentences in a mixture of French and English.

Original French:

"Il est rappelé au(x) destinataire(s), conformément aux articles 56 et 853 du Code de Procédure Civile :

Que les parties se défendent elles-mêmes ou qu'elles ont la faculté de se faire assister ou représenter par toutes personnes de leur choix ; que leur représentant, s'il n'est pas Avocat, doit justifier d'un pouvoir spécial.

Que faute de comparaître ou de se faire représenter, elles s'exposent à ce qu'un jugement soit rendu contre elles sur les seuls éléments fournis par leur(s) adversaire(s)."

This is a standard note taken from a Summons to appear in court ("Assignation"), notifying the recipient that legal proceedings have been started against him/her/it.

Here is the correct translation:

"The recipient(s) is (are) reminded that, in accordance with sections 56 and 853 of the French Code of Civil Procedure (Code de Procédure Civile):

Parties are responsible for their own defence, although they may be assisted or represented by any person of their choice. If the person representing them is not a French lawyer (avocat), he/she must produce a special power of attorney.

If they fail to appear or be represented, a judgment may be entered against them solely on the basis of arguments and evidence presented by the other party(ies)."

First machine translation:

"It is pointed out au(x) recipient, in accordance with articles 56 and 853 of the Code of Civil procedure:

That the parts defend themselves or qu?elles have the ability to be made assist or represent by all people of their choice; that their representative, s?il n?est Lawyer, must justify d?un special capacity.

That fault of appearing or of being made represent, they s?exposent with this qu?un judgement is returned against them on the only elements provided by leur(s) adversary."

Second machine translation:

"It is recalled to the (x)

What the parties defend themselves themselves or qu'elles have the faculty to do to attend itself or represent by all persons of their choice; that representing for them, s'il n'est Lawyer, must justify d'un to be able special.

What for lack of appear or to do to represent itself, they s'exposent to this qu'un judgement is returned against them on the alone elements furnish by them (leur(s))."

What a mumbo-jumbo!

Machine translation is not even remotely close to replacing the human mind.

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