Translation Programs

Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tools and how they help with your German translation

This article looks at how translation programs and translation memories - CAT tools - work. It follows our introduction to translation software, plus a list of the most popular translator software programs available.

translation programs

CAT tools all share several basic components:

1. Translation Memory (TM ) - this is the database of bilingual translation segments which the translator builds up with every translation they complete.

You can import pre-existing TMs provided by clients, and create TMs by aligning past translations.

2. Aligner function - this allows you to create TMs from existing parallel texts and import them into your CAT tool.

3. Glossaries – in addition to expanding your TM every time you add a translation, CAT tools also support glossary building for each project/client/subject area. As you translate, you mark a specific term in the source text and its translated equivalents, and then click to add to your glossary.

4. Quality Assurance tools - these are designed to verify elements in your translation and flag potential errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, numbers, terminology consistency, formatting tags, and more.

The translation memory (TM)

Translation programs are clever tools, but their memories – the database of parallel texts – don’t create themselves!

If you're starting from scratch with a new CAT tool, your TM will gradually grow as you add source texts and translate them in the CAT tool.

You can also import existing TMs: either ones sent by the client or agency, or ones you create yourself by aligning past source texts and translations.

Once you've built up a solid archive of past translations, you will begin to enjoy significant time savings when your translation program can start to automatically retrieve related segments from past German-English matches.

Many brands of translation software will also carry out automatic internet searches for terms, or draw on terminology databases such as Google, Systran, Ultralingua etc. which is a time saving in itself.

.TMX is the universal format for exchanging translation memory files between different German to English translation software, so when you’ve invested in one tool, you should still be able to “communicate” and transfer databases of terminology with others.

Obviously the software is only as good as the translations it uses as reference texts, and the regularity with which it is updated.

I’ve received several TM files which include a variety of translations for a set term, i.e. the consistency which is so loudly touted is flagrantly ignored/not achieved.

Building glossaries

Glosssaries are a parallel set of terminology sources that your CAT tool can call up to suggest translations for specific terms.

Each time that term subsequently appears, the CAT tool will highlight it in the source text, colour-coded either as a perfect match (green) or a similar match (orange) - e.g., in the plural, not singular form - and automatically enter it into the segment you are translating.

You can also click on a single word or word combination in a source segment and instruct the CAT tool to search the entire TM database for previous instances of the term.

Again, you can import glossaries supplied by clients into your CAT tool.

The translation process

Basically, all translation programs work by matching up segments of (in our case) German text – usually a clause or sentence in length – with their English equivalents to form segments, or “translation units”.

These German translation units are then compared with units generated from previous German texts which you (or another agency translator) have stored in the translation memory – the TM.

Where it finds matches, the TM pulls up the parallel English text and presents it as a possible translation for the current text.

Your job is to consider the suggested translation for that particular segment, adjust/translate as necessary, save, and move down to the next segment. Repeat.

You’ll often hear the term “fuzzy matching” and this means that the TM will also throw up partial translations for translation units based on similar, rather than exact, German text units translated in the past.

You can usually set your German to English translation software to defined degrees of fuzziness, e.g., 75%.

When should I use translation programs?

Language translation software is a boon for translators, especially those who work regularly for a particular client or in one subject area, and/or on long and repetitive translations.

Translation programs also become more helpful the longer you work in translation - the likelihood of terms you have translated in the past cropping up in new translation grows with every fresh translation you tackle.

If you keep all your translations in your own master TM, you have effectively created a library of all your past work. As you progress, so your TM becomes an increasingly valuable resource.

I can't imagine not using one nowadays.

Agencies use translation programs to ensure consistency, which is essential where more than one translator works on texts for a client, and where the agency manages regular translations of similar texts (e.g., a large corporation’s annual financial statements).

Are there drawbacks to translation programs?

The answer used to be – cost.

Although CAT tools are now a standard part of every German translator's toolkit, even today, leading brands of translation program can be relatively expensive (500 to 1,000 euros).

Once you have one, some agencies that demand their freelance translators use a translation memory may even expect to pay less for a translation – after all, they calculate that you won’t need to freshly translate every word or sentence!

As the translator has to buy the program, pay to attend seminars on how to use it, and still manage the translation, the question of whether you really come out on top when using a more expensive TM can be a bit iffy unless your volumes of translation warrant it.

The good news?

Plenty more CAT tools have been launched on the market in recent years, and many of them are even free. I've listed the most popular ones here.

But even if you haven’t got a CAT tool, it doesn’t mean you can’t use a TM provided by a client or agency: TM files themselves function as glossaries – just use the Search tool.

The future of CAT tools and translation programs?

We are beginning to see the advent of free, browser based, TM systems (e.g., Wordfast Anywhere) and the popularity of open source translation software (e.g., OmegaT) is growing.

The sheer number of different TM systems available makes compatibility more important – and this should, in turn, reduce the hold that any one brand may have over the market.

What's the best translation program for me?

Here I've listed some of the most popular CAT tools on the market, with some background information on each one.

Some are free, and if you're new to CAT tools, I'd recommend that you get familiar with a free version before deciding which tool to invest in. I hope you'll find them useful.

Happy translating!


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Joanna Scudamore-Trezek

I'm a German to English translator living and working in Vienna, Austria. I turn German texts into clear and accessible English, allowing clients to present their stories, ideas and information to a completely new audience. My business and marketing clients rely on me to get their message across clearly and effectively.  How can I help you today?

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