People often tell me about the wonders of DeepL, a tool which translates their mails into English in a matter of seconds. Knowing how much time it can take to write an English email, I certainly understand the appeal. And machine translation has come a long way since the days when the output was often a source of great hilarity.

But I’m afraid I still have to be a spoilsport and inject a note of caution. Putting aside my reservations as an English trainer for a moment – I’ll come back to those – the two main drawbacks I see are data security and translation errors. It’s especially important to be aware of these if you’re using DeepL, or any other machine translation tool, in a work context. Let’s have a closer look.

 

Data security

DeepL emphasises that it’s a German-based company governed by the European Union’s strict data protection laws. However, only subscribers to the DeepL Pro version (€5.99 a month for a yearly subscription) receive the assurance that their texts are deleted immediately after translation. That would certainly make me wary of using the free version for texts containing any sensitive information.

Whether you use the free or paid version of the tool, DeepL states in its data protection declaration that you should not enter texts containing personal data (personenbezogene Daten). So it’s essential to check anything you want to translate carefully beforehand and replace any personal information, for example by changing a name to ‘the employee’. 

 

Translation errors

Although the quality of machine translation in general has improved greatly in recent years and DeepL regularly receives great reviews in the media, it isn’t perfect. And the tricky thing is that as the quality of the translations has improved, inaccuracies aren’t always easy to recognise. But they are still there. While errors in emails to colleagues will probably just result in confusion or embarrassment, in the case of marketing materials they can make a really bad impression (and may turn out to be very expensive). In instruction manuals or on product labels the impact can be dire.

A point to bear in mind is that, in general, machine translation tools come up with a literal translation. They may not recognise humour, a play on words and typical sayings. Machine translation is unlikely to come up with a creative solution (e.g. for a slogan), take cultural factors into account or produce a polished text. While these points are probably less important for a quick mail to your team, I’m convinced that other texts – on a website, for example – deserve more thought and attention to detail. That’s where professional translators come in.

To get the best possible translation from a tool like DeepL, you need to prepare the text carefully in your own language. Make sure that spellings and grammar are correct, use shortish sentences and avoid abbreviations or slang.

On top of that, the translation provided needs to be checked really carefully. Not only for mistakes, but also to make sure that the tone reflects your intended message. If your English isn’t strong, it’s advisable to get support here.

 

My perspective as an English trainer

There’s no doubt about it: writing is a great way to improve your English. If you have to write emails in English regularly, this practice is built into your day. No need to set aside time for working on your language skills, it’s just part of the job.

Unlike speaking, the pressure is off. You don’t need to come up with a sentence immediately. There’s time to gather your thoughts, search your memory or a dictionary for exactly the right words – thus reactivating or building up your vocabulary. You can also check your grammar and make any necessary changes.

If you write regularly in English, you’ll develop your own style and your personality will come across better. Something that’s not to be underestimated if mails are your main channel of communication. 

Writing emails as a matter of course will also help you to build up to longer texts. So when you’re asked to write a report, for example, you’re less likely to feel overwhelmed. What’s more, writing has a positive impact on your spoken English, too.

I think it’d be a pity to miss out on these benefits by writing in German and pasting your text into DeepL. 

 

What I think DeepL is really good for

Having pointed out the drawbacks and limitations, I’d like to finish with a few examples of where I think DeepL can be really useful.  

As a starting point: If you’re working on a translation it’s a lot faster to copy a whole paragraph into DeepL than to look up words individually. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but it’s essential not to be satisfied with the translation provided. Read it critically, check the alternatives offered – does one of those fit better in the context? Or do you need to consult a dictionary or other sources for a certain term? Does the text read well? Could you switch a sentence around to make it flow better? Can you avoid any repetitions?  

Inspiration: Sometimes when I’m translating a text, I come to a passage where I struggle to find the right words. Or I know the vocabulary but can’t get the sentence to sound right. In these situations, seeing what DeepL comes up with helps me get back on track and find a good translation. The same is true if I want to write something in English, but what comes to mind are German phrases which express exactly what I want to say.

Translating into your own language: DeepL can be a great help if you need to understand the gist of a mail or website. Or maybe you want to check the description of a product you’re interested in buying. When you have a translation into your native language in front of you, errors are often obvious. You can easily compare the translated text with what you would expect to read and check any discrepancies. 

 

 

Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too. » more