Secondary Logo

Institutional members access full text with Ovid®

Share this article on:

A Comparison of Human and Machine Translation of Health Promotion Materials for Public Health Practice: Time, Costs, and Quality

Turner, Anne M. MD, MLIS, MPH; Bergman, Margo PhD, MPH; Brownstein, Megumu MSW, MPH; Cole, Kate MPH; Kirchhoff, Katrin PhD

Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: September/October 2014 - Volume 20 - Issue 5 - p 523–529
doi: 10.1097/PHH.0b013e3182a95c87
Original Articles

Context: Most local public health departments serve limited English proficiency groups but lack sufficient resources to translate the health promotion materials that they produce into different languages. Machine translation (MT) with human postediting could fill this gap and work toward decreasing health disparities among non–English speakers.

Objectives: (1) To identify the time and costs associated with human translation (HT) of public health documents, (2) determine the time necessary for human postediting of MT, and (3) compare the quality of postedited MT and HT.

Design: A quality comparison of 25 MT and HT documents was performed with public health translators. The public health professionals involved were queried about the workflow, costs, and time for HT of 11 English public health documents over a 20-month period. Three recently translated documents of similar size and topic were then machine translated, the time for human postediting was recorded, and a blind quality analysis was performed.

Setting: Seattle/King County, Washington.

Participants: Public health professionals.

Main Outcome Measures: (1) Estimated times for various HT tasks; (2) observed postediting times for MT documents; (3) actual costs for HT; and (4) comparison of quality ratings for HT and MT.

Results: Human translation via local health department methods took 17 hours to 6 days. While HT postediting words per minute ranged from 1.58 to 5.88, MT plus human postediting words per minute ranged from 10 to 30. The cost of HT ranged from $130 to $1220; MT required no additional costs. A quality comparison by bilingual public health professionals showed that MT and HT were equivalently preferred.

Conclusions: MT with human postediting can reduce the time and costs of translating public health materials while maintaining quality similar to HT. In conjunction with postediting, MT could greatly improve the availability of multilingual public health materials.

Supplemental Digital Content is Available in the Text.The article provides a comparison of time, costs, and quality of human and machine translation of multilingual health promotion materials for public health practice.

Northwest Center for Public Health Practice (Dr Turner), Department of Health Services, School of Public Health (Dr Turner and Ms Cole), Department of Biomedical Informatics and Medical Education, School of Medicine (Dr Bergman and Ms Brownstein), and Department of Electrical Engineering, College of Engineering (Dr Kirchhoff), University of Washington, Seattle.

Correspondence: Anne M. Turner, MD, MLIS, MPH, Northwest Center for Public Health Practice, Department of Health Services, School of Public Health, University of Washington, 1107 NE 45th St, Ste 400, Seattle, WA 98105 (

The research reported here was supported by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under award number R01 10432704. Dr Bergman was supported in part by the NIH NLM Training grant (no. 2T15LM007442) at the University of Washington. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH.

The authors thank the employees of Public Health–Seattle & King County and the Washington State Department of Health who participated in this study. The authors also thank Hannah Mandel for her review of the manuscript.

No conflicts of interest for any authors are reported.

Supplemental digital content is available for this article. Direct URL citations appear in the printed text and are provided in the HTML and PDF versions of this article on the journal's Web site (

© 2014 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.