The security risks of online translations

Everyone who works in an international setting has a story about a bad translation.  Years ago – long before every office had computers – I was on the production staff of an English-language magazine here in Frankfurt.  It was February, and a local travel agency was advertising trips to warm, sunny destinations.  Their original German ad read:  Haben Sie eine Nase voll von Schnee?  In German, if one has eine Nase voll it simply means you are fed up – in this case with snow and/or the cold weather.  Our apprentices, however, translated the ad literally, coming up with the memorable Do you have a nose full of snow?  In the 1980s, having a “nose full of snow” was slang for snorting cocaine – not appropriate for a publication targeted at American military families.

While technology has made great strides in translation software, it’s still far from perfect. When I put the snow sentence into Google Translate, guess what I got?  Yup – that same nose full of snow.  Marketing blogs are full of translation nightmares that could have been easily resolved had a human been involved.  That said, most translation sites do a decent job with run-of-the-mill business correspondence and basic documents.  So, if it’s not the quality of the translation that’s the problem, what is?

It’s the security of the information you are translating.

Don DePalma, Chief Strategy Officer at Common Sense Advisory Research, identified this issue as far back as 2014.  “Both your employees and your suppliers are unconsciously Translateconspiring to broadcast your confidential information, trade secrets, and intellectual property (IP) to the world. How? Through unencrypted requests to Google Translate and Microsoft Bing Translator…”.  To give you an idea of how much information is translated through online sites, take a look at these numbers:  In 2014, managers surveyed estimated that at least 65 per cent of their employees used online translation services and Business Insider estimates that Google translates more than 143 billion words per day.

So why is this a problem?

Because when you use services like Google Translate, as soon as you hit that return key, your confidential information isn’t as confidential as you think.  For example, take a look at Google’s Terms of Service:

Some of our Services allow you to upload, submit, store, send or receive content. You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.

When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.

This means once you put the text into the translation box, Google has it and can do what it wants with it.  But Google isn’t alone.  In September 2017, companies in Norway discovered that highly sensitive documents, including notices of dismissal, plans of workforce reductions and outsourcing, passwords, code information and contracts had been posted online and accessible to everyone because employees had used  When contacted by the Norwegian news agency, explained that the terms of service state that all texts translated by the software are kept in order to improve the quality of the translations.  These translations were then indexed by Google and made available online.

A friend recommended DeepL, stating that the translations were not only more accurate, but the platform was also safer than other services.  Once again, I entered my snow text and, to my surprise, it came up with Are you fed up with snow?   I also noticed that below the translation box were three bullet points, the first of which was “keep your texts confidential.” When I clicked to get more information, the site stated that all texts translated on DeepL were “deleted immediately after the translation has been completed” and that “the connection to our servers is always encrypted.”  However, this wasn’t the free translator at the top of the page; instead, it was for their DeepL Pro service, which costs €5.99 a month for 5 translations per month.  The more documents you need to translate, the more it’s going to cost you – up to €39.99 a month to translate up to 100 documents per month.

But even if you decide to pay for a secure service such as DeepL Pro, your documents may still be compromised if the translation is done using non-secure public wi-fi spots.

So, what are your options?

If the document you are translating is large, important, and/or lasting – hire a human translator.  They will not only do a better job than a machine translator, but they will also be able to naturalize the text.  However, most of my clients confess that they aren’t using a translator for the annual report or a major marketing campaign.  They are using it for things like English language emails.  If this is the case, your best bet is to simply improve your English.  That sounds a bit brutal, I know.  But what if you send a beautifully translated email to an important stakeholder in London, and this person decides to follow up the email with a phone call – one that you don’t feel prepared to take. What then?

Remember, communicating doesn’t mean you write or speak without making mistakes.  It means making yourself understood.  I know I would rather speak to a non-perfect human than a computer any day.

Laura Marshallsay Thanks for dropping by this week.  Feel free to contact me if you have any questions, comments, or if you’d like to speak to me about you or your organisation’s training needs.

Marshallsay English – Connecting your world through language.


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