05 Jul 2018


Computer-assisted translation or CAT simply means computer software used to help translators improve their translation process. It should not be confused with machine translation, which is widely used today, but with varying accuracy levels, depending on the language. However, there are certain advantages to machine translation such as speed, saving money and energy. Combining the speed of a machine with human skills, perception and knowledge, we get a translator with a serious tool, allowing them to produce high-quality translations in less time. This is where CAT tools come into play, bridging the gap and creating an interactive process between people and machines.

How do CAT tools work?

At the start of the process, a CAT tool divides the text into separate segments, making the text easier to translate. With the segments lined up on the screen, and both source and target language clearly displayed in front of you, you type only what needs typing. The tool propagates your choices as you go, so when the same segments or terms appear later in the document, you do not need to retype or cut-and-paste them. This is especially useful when it comes to medical, legal, or technical documents, often full of repetitive terminology which needs to be kept consistent. If there is an existing terminology list (database of terms and their rules of usage) and you can import it into your term base, it will help you manage your terms in the source and target languages.

This is where we have to stop and mention the translation memory, the most useful feature of CAT tools – an ever-expanding database which keeps recording your translations and storing them for future use. This allows translators to save time and never translate the same phrase or sentence twice. As you translate, the translation memory grows, making larger projects easier and increasing your efficiency. As you work, translation memory will highlight and offer segments that match. Even if they do not match 100%, they will be suggested as special “fuzzy matches”, which can be accepted or dismissed. Also, it is great to know that every subsequent project similar to the previous one will be better “pre-translated”, and that your terminology and writing style will remain consistent.

In addition to these, CAT tools provide numerous other options that make a translator’s life easier – from progress capture to quality controls, taking care of such issues as spelling mistakes, punctuation mistakes, and number conversion mistakes. Safety is another thing that can be crucial: file backup is done consistently and every segment is saved immediately after completion. If something happens to your computer, for example, you would not lose your work.

The bottom line is that using CAT tools saves time, allows you to improve your work and maintain consistent quality of translations, while making it easy to manage and organize your projects.

When to use CAT tools

CAT tools are invaluable when translating technical documents, contracts, reports or financial documents. With a high number of terms repeated throughout, CAT tools are relevant and the more you use them, the better they get – as your translation memory becomes more populated and more accurate. However, when you need to translate literary texts, this technology is both unsuitable and ineffective, as the variation of meaning behind each word and sentence is more consequential.

If we think about cultural references, idiomatic expressions, wordplay, clichés and stereotypes – we can realize that machines cannot distinguish between literal and figurative meaning, therefore they would not be able to provide the suggestion worth even half the effort of a seasoned translator.