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, what machine translation has on its side is speed, saving money and energy in the process. Combining the speed of a machine with the human skill, 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 in, bridging the gap and creating an interactive process between a person and a machine.

How do CAT tools work?

At the start of a process, 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 re-type 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 the 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 source and in target language.

We cannot go any further without mentioning translation memory tool, the most useful feature of CAT tools – an ever-expanding database which keeps recording your translations and storing them for future use. This allows a translator 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 input items that match. Even if they do not match 100%, they will be suggested through special “fuzzy match”, which can be accepted or dismissed. Also, it is great to know that every next project similar to the previous will have a better pre-translation, 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, play on words, clichés and stereotypes – we can realize that machines cannot distinguish between literal and figurative meaning, therefore would not be able to provide the suggestion worth even half the effort of a seasoned translator.