Pretrained character-level language models were recently shown to be competitive with popular subword models across a range of NLP tasks. However, there has been little research on their effectiveness for neural machine translation (NMT). This work performs an extensive comparison across multiple languages and experimental conditions of state-of-the-art character- and subword-level pre-trained models (ByT5 and mT5, respectively) on NMT, showing the effectiveness of character-level modeling in translation, particularly in cases where training data is limited. In our analysis, we show how character models’ performance gains are reflected in better translations of orthographically similar words and rare words. While evaluating the importance of source texts in driving model predictions, we highlight ByT5 word-level patterns suggesting an ability to modulate word and character-level information during the translation, providing insights into a potential weakness of character-level modeling. We conclude by assessing the efficiency tradeoff of character models, suggesting their usage in non-time-critical scenarios to boost translation quality.