The Translator’s Little Helpers

I have so far avoided talking about CAT tools on this blog for fear that they might be confused with machine translation programs, but since the word seems to be out of the translatosphere, it may be helpful to clarify what CAT tools are and what they do.

What CAT tools are

Computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools are not machine translation programs and have nothing to do with Google Translate, Bing and the likes; they are not free; and they do not translate a text for you. CAT tools are costly pieces of software that some professional translators invest in to ensure consistency and quality, get formatting issues out of the way and occasionally save time. Trados and memoQ are currently leading the market, with Déjà Vu, Wordfast, Across and a few others also available.

What CAT tools do

The screen is split into a grid with the “source” text (original) on the left and an empty column on the right for the “target” text (translation) to be typed in. Each sentence, heading or bullet point constitutes a “segment”, i.e. one line or cell in the grid. This layout, with the source and target texts side by side on one screen, divided into small workable units, saves having to go back and forth between two separate word documents and is safer than working directly on the source text.

The main benefit of CAT tools is when dealing with repetitions. When the software identifies an identical or similar segment, the previous translation comes up automatically and simply needs to be checked as it may not necessarily fit “as is” – or at all. Say the document is a questionnaire, with the same question and the same list of options repeated for various objects, in the English version only the name of the object is likely to change. In most other European languages, all the words relating to the object will need to be adjusted according to gender, case and number. In such a case, the CAT tool helps with consistency regarding the choice of words, but doesn’t save time. Only in the case of chunks of text is this trick a time-saver. And even then, time saved does not mean a discount for the client: CAT tools typically cost between £600 and £800, which is no small investment for a sole trader and it will take a fair few repetitions before the expense is recouped!

Another valuable advantage of CAT tools is that the translation is saved as a translation memory (TM) file, each segment match (source-target) being stored as such. This comes in handy if the client needs to have the same text updated later or has a similar document to translate. The software will recognise some of the segments and treat them like repetitions, reminding the translator of the previous translation so they don’t have to rummage through the archives. Not only does this save time – although, again, each segment will need to be checked and possibly updated, which is a time-consuming task in itself, it also ensures consistency throughout the client’s literature.

CAT tools offer other benefits. For instance, the formatting is usually taken care of: “tags” appear around any group of words that is in bold, italics, a different font, etc. so you are aware that there is something there but you only need to hit a key for the tag to be copied over and for the formatting to be reproduced in the target. Some CAT tools have a WYSIWYG (a panel at the bottom of the grid displaying what the text will look like) so you can see the formatting in context if need be; many also have a spellcheck option; and last but not least, CAT tools usually have an area for the translator to build a glossary of terminology.

One point to note is that CAT tools cannot work through PDFs (or if some do, it is not without difficulties or limitations) or scanned documents. Therefore, whether your translator uses a CAT tool or not, they will always prefer editable files such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents.

In Short

CAT tools make the translator’s work easier and help with regards to quality assurance and consistency but, while they make for a smoother ride, they do not replace the driver.


CAT tools are not toys used to distract your furry friend away from your keyboard when the deadline is looming.

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