How to get top quality translations for less with “CATs”
For any company looking to outsource their translation needs in the most cost-effective way possible, a basic understanding of CAT tools is indispensable. Perhaps you’ve seen the term bandied about on translation agency websites but you’re not quite sure what it means. Or maybe you want to learn more about how CAT tools can save you money. Read on for all the details on these innovative pieces of software and become a CAT tool expert.
What are CAT tools and how do they work?
Simply put, CAT tools (short for computer-assisted translation tools) are software programs used by translators to automate part of the translation process. The basic principle is that the translator opens the source text in a CAT tool program in order to translate it. The CAT tool splits the text into segments – typically individual sentences – known as translation units (TUs). The segments are presented clearly in order to make translation quicker: typically, the software will show a two-column grid, with source text segments displayed on the left and a series of empty cells on the right where the translator enters the correct translation for each TU. Once a translation unit has been translated, the CAT tool saves the source segment and its translation together as a pair, and the translator can return to this pair at any time to make changes as needed. CAT tools make this kind of revision easy with a number of features that help the translator navigate large texts to find just what they need.
CAT tools really come into their own as a tool for building translation memories (TMs). As a translator works, the CAT tool builds a database of previous translations for the same source segment, which are displayed for the translator to select from with a single click. This database, known as a translation memory, can be used not only for the text you’re currently translating, but also for other texts. The CAT tool can use this translation memory to search for matching translation units, inserting the correct translation for the segments in advance so that the translator only has to check them. Modern CAT tools can also search for partially matching segments, known as fuzzy matches.
Another great feature of CAT tools is that translators can use them to look up words in a range of terminology databases, dictionaries and specialist encyclopedias, which are increasingly available in electronic formats. The CAT tool will not only look up the word, but can also find the word in the correct dictionary. For example, if your text is legal, you can tell the CAT tool this, so it will put results from legal dictionaries at the top of the list. The technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and industry specialists predict that soon CAT tools will be able to use algorithms to examine the source text and predict which translation will be correct with increasing degrees of accuracy.
Professional translators develop and hone the abilities of their CAT tools by importing term bases and glossaries, and for many of them the hunt for high-quality material has become a priority in developing their services. The more quality information the CAT tool can access, the more likely it is to suggest the correct term. But no matter how clever these programs become, it is always important to remember that the CAT tool is just that, a tool. Just as owning an excellent tennis racket does not make you Roger Federer, and having a set of oil paints does not mean you’ll create the Mona Lisa, CAT tools will only create meaningful high-quality translations if they’re in the hands of skilled professional translators.
What are the benefits of CAT tools for the client?
In many ways a CAT tool offers the same benefits to both translators and clients, after all, you both have the same goal: speedy, accurate and fluent translation. CAT tools can really speed things up with their matching technology, acting as a personal typist for the translator, who no longer has to go to the trouble of retyping the same translation 20 times in a repetitive text. This benefit gets passed on to the client in the form of price discounts. In order to provide a quote, the project manager will analyse the text against the translation memory, and generate a report that lists the number of internal repetitions as well as the number of matches and fuzzy matches between the text and the TM. Translation agencies will offer discounts at various levels for internal repetitions and full, strong and weak matches against the TM. For highly repetitive texts these discounts can stack up to a sizeable percentage of the total cost of the job, which means choosing an agency that uses CAT tools is the only way to go if you want to see huge savings on your translations.
The second great benefit of CAT tools is the way in which they improve the accuracy of the text. With the translation memory on hand, gone are the days when translators needed the memory of an elephant to translate large texts. Prior to the advent of CAT tools, translators would often need to remember vast amounts of terminology, which would change from job to job depending on the client’s preferences, and they had to make sure huge texts of many thousands of words were perfectly consistent. It was a recipe for inaccuracy and inconsistency. Translation memories have made that a thing of the past. One of the only areas where computers consistently trump humans in terms of cognition is memory, so it makes complete sense to pass off this irksome job to our super-capable electronic friends. Editing, quality assurance, using indexing or concordance tools, applying formal rules or style guides, correcting formatting and standardising terminology are no longer a matter of scrabbling around with long handwritten lists: the computer does the job of remembering for you. This is one reason why many clients now invest in creating term bases of company terminology. This involves making a list of the terms your company most often uses, with the help of special software, and then having this list translated carefully into your target languages by top-level translators so that you now have a resource to use for every translation.
What’s the difference between machine translation and computer-assisted translation?
It’s important to establish that there is a massive difference between the CAT tools discussed here and machine translation. Machine translation, or MT, is simply a translation conducted entirely by computers using databases, dictionaries, or corpuses. In its most basic form, machine translation creates a ‘translation’ of the text you enter using word-by-word substitution. Algorithms are being developed to allow for other linguistic differences, such as syntax conventions, and many machine translators now use statistical techniques and corpus analysis to inform the output. However, in almost all situations, machine translation is so vastly inferior to human translation as to be worthless for all practical purposes. For a start, machines struggle to disambiguate word sense, that is, to choose between two meanings of a word. Computers cannot understand non-standard speech, vernaculars and colloquialisms, they have no feeling for connotation and tone, and they are useless at idiomatic language.
Even a quick experiment with translating a text into a foreign language and back using a machine translator is usually enough to convince doubters that this method is still woefully subpar. There has been some success using machine translation for extremely limited, formulaic linguistic scenarios such as weather reports, but for the vast majority of clients, machine translation is a false economy and in many cases leads to texts being mangled beyond all recognition.
With CAT tools, the computer facilitates speed and terminological consistency by taking over the tasks that humans perform relatively poorly at, while not interfering with the skills that humans are exceptionally good at: deduction, reasoning, rational judgement and meaningful comprehension. In short, CAT tools help combine the strengths of both humans and machines, while mitigating the weaknesses of each.
How we use CAT tools at Translators Family
Here at Translators Family the entire team uses CAT tools as standard. We believe that while there is no substitute for native-speaking highly specialised translators, everyone should be afforded the very best tools for their work. We work predominantly with SDL software as our go-to tool. SDL Studio is the latest version of Trados and has become the industry standard. Clients and translators all love this tool for its reliability, speed and ability to handle file types that earlier versions of the program could not handle: xliffs, for example. But we can also work with older CAT tools such as Trados’s pre-2010 programs, Translators Workbench and TagEditor, as well as SDLX, another earlier grid-based tool, and Transit, which is still the standard software in certain sectors, such as the German automotive industry.
As well as bringing the benefits of automation to translation, we also work with a host of quality assurance tools to help check spelling, grammar, adherence to glossaries, numeric mismatches, etc. We use a variety of localisation tools including Xbench for QA processes and Passolo, a localisation program ideal for software translation. Many of these tools are multi-functional, and considerably simplify the localisation process, capturing text easily and plugging the translation in seamlessly in all the right places. And our DTP team are always on hand to troubleshoot unusual file formats, conduct text extraction and resolve any other technical issues that may arise.
Thanks to the benefits of CAT tools and similar programs, Translators Family provides accurate, fluent and consistent translations in a range of file formats with top quality editing and QA processes, all while offering discounts of up to 80% on a snappy timescale.