As the writer, Suzy Kassem once said, “Never trust the translation or interpretation of something without first trusting its interpreter.” And in our increasingly globalized society, never has this been truer! Translation is an art form that often does not receive the credit it deserves. Having said that, sometimes we all need to be able to translate something into another language – and we want it to be done reliably. With so much potential for awkward misunderstandings, we compared the very best free translation tools, to save you the hassle of doing so.

Which translation tool is best for me?

The translation tool you rely on will depend on whether you want to translate a few words to work out exactly what is likely to be on the plate of the meal just ordered, or you’re a professional translator and don’t yet want to take out a subscription to a CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) tool.

There is a diverse range of options available for these scenarios – and for everything in between. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular choices among linguists (budding and expert!).

1. Google Translate

Just like the name of the search engine itself, ‘Google Translate’ has become a default term. It’s free, quick, and easy – simply type in the words or phrase you want to translate into Google, along with “in”, followed by the name of the target language. You’ll get a rough idea of what your text says, and in cases where you just need the know the meaning of a word – let’s say, you’ve ordered the daurade in a French restaurant. You know it’s some kind of fish, but you’re not sure which one. Google Translate will quickly let you know you’re about to eat some sea bream.

It’s also a simple way to translate a whole website. Just type in the URL of the site, tell it (or let it detect) the source language, and then select the target language on the right. Click on the link and it will show you the website in your chosen language. This may be useful if you’re trying to book a hotel on a site that only has one language, for example, but it is certainly not a good idea for translating your entire e-commerce website! We’ve all seen hilarious examples of mistranslations, and nobody wants visitors to their website who simply come to laugh at how badly it’s been translated.

That’s not the only thing to bear in mind, though. With Google Translate, there is no confidentiality, so it’s definitely not good for sensitive documents. It also has varying degrees of accuracy depending on the language pair. With Spanish, you can expect a fairly solid 90% accuracy, but with languages that are less common, there is a huge drop-off. Armenian, for example, is only thought to be around 55% accurate.

2. Bing Translator

Bing Translator is the Microsoft version of Google Translate, and it works in exactly the same way – but uses Microsoft’s software. Just like Google, Bing’s translation software can auto-detect the source language, and you simply have to pick the target language in the right-hand box. You can choose from around 70 languages or so, slightly fewer than the 100+ on offer with Google.

3. Reverso

At first glance, Reverso appears very similar to the first two free translation tools we discussed. Just like Google, you type in or copy your source text on the left-hand side, wait for it to detect the language, and select what language you want it to be translated into. In France, Reverso is much more popular with Google, with around 5 million users each month versus just one million for Google Translate. It offers the option to rephrase sections of text (subscribers get unlimited opportunities to do this, whereas those using the free version can just use the rephrase tool 20 times).

As well as translations of individual words, Reverso also has a range of grammar and conjugation skills, so you are more likely to obtain a translation that flows better in the target language. It can’t, however, translate web pages directly, like Google and Bing.

4. DeepL

DeepL claims to be able to produce the “world’s best machine translation”, boasting that it provides translations that are six times more accurate in English to German and English to Japanese, and five times more so when translating English into Chinese. It is the tool of choice among many translation professionals and has sophisticated options such as selecting an informal or formal tone.

This translation tool allows you to upload entire PDFs as well as capture sections of text on-screen (useful if you don’t have them in a document). It also comes with a range of intuitive shortcuts and in the mobile app, you can even carry out real-time camera translations. This saves you from having to type out text when you’re on the go. Overall, it is rated very highly for accuracy and seems to provide more natural-sounding translations that reflect how the target language is actually used in a human context.

When to use free tools and when to use an expert

While DeepL (and others) can certainly produce a respectable translation, there are also occasions when nothing can replace a professional linguist. One of the deciding factors in whether to choose a human translator or go with a free AI tool is the text you are translating.

Clearly, legal and medical documents, as well as those containing sensitive information, should always have a professional linguist work on them. Similarly, when translating a website it is always worth the expense of an expert in the long run. Websites are your company’s interface. Any errors will leave a negative impression – and worse still, risk transmitting something that is downright wrong. Since a website is something that will be read and re-read, having it word perfect from the off is vital. If you need to translate your own website and you’re not sure where to start, consult the services of an expert in order to find the best process to follow. This will save time – and money – in the long run.

Free online translation tools have become more and more sophisticated over recent years. They are slowly beginning to take account of nuance and other linguistic features such as register and tone. Will there ever be a day when a machine can replace a human translator? Perhaps in some contexts, yes. But nothing can ever fully replicate the sophistication of a human!