When faced with a foreign language document that has landed upon our desk, unless fairly proficient in the source language, many of us will be temporarily taken aback. Whether we have a basic knowledge of the language or none at all, we will then be faced with a choice - whether to opt for a free online translation or a professional translation.
An online translation can be a legitimate aid to linguistic decipherment. It is especially useful in instances where one already has a basic knowledge of the source language but not quite enough to translate the entire corpus of the text.
In most cases, a simple substitution of words from one language to another carried out by the online translator, although very mechanical in its output (being as it is, a dictionary based word substitution), will enable one to use existing knowledge combined with previously unknown translated words, to arrive at a satisfactory approximation of the whole.
With previous knowledge of a language one is able to bypass the main weakness of online translation engines; as previously mentioned many of the translation engine's algorithms carry out a dictionary based translation. As you can imagine though, this might not always produce a translated output with regard to the many tenses, conjugations or cases (e.g. nominative, accusative and dative), common to most foreign languages. In these cases only a prior knowledge of a language will enable one to isolate the root verb or case components in order to arrive at an alternate form to input into the engine.
Even with no prior linguistic knowledge, online translations are very often more than sufficient to give one at least an inkling of a texts' meaning; a major attraction of online translations though, is that an online translation is free and for many businesses and private individuals, a free approximation of a text suffices well enough.
There are of course, circumstances where an approximate translation is not acceptable and in these instances, you are best advised to take up the services of a company that can provide professional document translation services.
One such circumstance is when attempting to translate an English document into another language. This is invariably done for business purposes and as with everything that a company produces, its quality, or lack thereof, will directly reflect upon your business' reputation.
The other obvious circumstance where only a professional translation is acceptable is whenever any type of legal, financial, medical, technical or business critical translation is required. The 'bottom line' with these types of documents is that anything other than a clear and accurate translation that conveys not only the document's meaning but also the original intent behind the text is a sure road to business disaster.
In summary, it can be fairly said that; if a linguistic 'guesstimate' will suffice, then an online translation will see you through. For anything that really matters though, you had best seek the services of a professional translator!