CAT Tools: Overview and Main Benefits

By December 18, 2015 Blog No Comments

Despite the status of modern technology in the working life of today’s translators, the juxtaposition of conflicting views regarding its usefulness is still well and going strong. Some consider these technological innovations as invaluable tools for their work, while others believe that they create more problems than they solve. At the center of these discussions are the so called “CAT tools”. But where does the truth lie? How much easier do these tools actually make our work? Are they really essential for all translators without any exception whatsoever?

Clarification of concepts

Before we analyze the usefulness of these applications and find out who really needs them, we must first clarify a few concepts. The term most commonly used to describe tools, such as Trados or Wordfast, is “CAT tools”. The acronym CAT derives from “Computer Assisted Translation” and was created to describe all the software packages and suites that have been designed to assist the translators during their work. Recently, the term “TEnTs”, i.e. “Translation Environment Tools”, has been gaining more ground, because for many translators CAT tools refer only to translation memories, while those who have no contact with the field of translation might think that they refer to machine translation software. In fact, any electronic tool used by modern translators in order to be assisted during the translation process, to increase their productivity and to make their professional life easier is a CAT tool. Translation memories, terminology management programs, electronic dictionaries, text alignment software, project management systems, quality assurance tools and even spell checkers are some examples. TEnTs, a term coined by Jost Zetzsche, is a more precise term describing tools, where the translation process takes place assisted by a number of technologies. On the other hand, the problem with the term “translation memories” (TM), which are a subcategory of CAT tools and TEnTs, is that it does not describe the full range of capabilities of such programs. The use of a translation memory is usually only one of the many functions offered by these applications, which nowadays provide a wider range of features. However, these are the tools that we will discuss about in this article.

Overview of CAT tools’ key functions

Before discussing who can benefit from CAT software, let’s first take a look at the basic functions and features that they offer. The following list includes the basic functions found in most of them. Keep in mind, however, that each tool may provide an extensive range of extra capabilities in order to facilitate various aspects of the translation process.

a) Translation memory

The main function, from which these tools take their name, is the creation and use of a translation memory. A translation memory is nothing more than a file, where we store segments of translated text in the form of translation pairs, consisting of the segment in the source language and the corresponding segment translated into the target language. This way the program “remembers” each previously translated sentence, so the translator doesn’t have to translate anything twice.

b ) Terminology Management

TM suites usually include a tool for creating and managing glossaries. Using this, we can create our own glossaries or use those of our customers during the translation via the same interface, where the translation is taking place. In fact, the terms that exist in the glossary are automatically identified and highlighted by the program and the currently available translations are provided for automatic insertion.

c ) Concordance

Our saved translations can be used not only to avoid the trouble of having to translate the same sentence several times but also to refer to them and see how we have translated specific terms, words, or phrases in the past. This function is called concordance and it involves the creation of a table, where the word or phrase that we are searching for appears within the textual context of both the source and the target language.

d) Word Count

Most TM programs allow the calculation of the words that need translation, not only in total but also on the basis of a comparison with the sentences that have already been translated and stored into the memory. That way, we get the so called “fuzzy matches” (i.e. the segments that resemble -to some extent- to the sentences that already exist in the memory), “100% matches”, (i.e. identical segments already translated in our memory), “no matches” (i.e. the segments that we have to translate from scratch), and last but not least “repetitions” (i.e. the number of words in the segments that are repeated within the file and which we will need to translate only once).

e ) Translation of a wide variety of file types

Although we might find it easy to always translate in a simple text editor, such as Word or Writer, this is not always possible. There is a plethora of file formats that we are asked to translate, including markup files (HTML, XHTML, etc.) and DTP files (Framemaker, InDesign). TM programs support many different file formats, which can be opened and translated without having installed the respective programs on our computer. They also enable us to deliver translated files without having to waste time maintaining the formatting of the original file and also without the fear of inadvertently altering the coding that may lead to serious functional problems.

Which translators benefit from them?

Keeping in mind the functionality of these programs, we can distinguish three categories of professional translators: those for whom translation memories are considered an inevitable necessity, others who simply find them a helpful application and the rest, for whom TMs are a completely unnecessary tool.

a) Translators of technical texts

The translators of technical texts are the group of professionals, for whom CAT tools are an inevitable prerequisite. Translation agencies and companies involved in technical content translation and localization projects consider the use of such a tool as a top requirement for the translators they hire. Technical texts such as manuals, brochures technical data sheets, website and software files are exactly the kind of files, for whose localization, TMs were primarily designed for. The functionality of such programs can lead to a dramatic reduction in the time required to translate such files, mainly because of their high volume of repetitions. Moreover, terminology management plug-ins ensure the consistency of corporate terminology, which is a top priority for this kind of customers. In addition, the files containing the texts usually fall into the category of those that cannot be opened with a simple text editor and can contain code (e.g. the markup language files of a website), which should not be altered by the translator. CAT tools help to avoid such problems by protecting the code and giving access only to the text that needs to be translated, thus maintaining the file format and the formatting of the text. Finally, we should note that such files are often sent to the translator as a bilingual file that is used exclusively by a particular tool in order to facilitate the internal workflow of the company.

b ) Translators of texts that contain terminology

Translators engaged in legal and financial projects or those who work on scientific texts, which contain much terminology, are not usually required to deal with either complex file formats or high repetitive content. However, in this case the creation of the glossary and its ease of use within the same interface of the translation editor, without having to open a separate program to search for terminology, not only saves time and effort but also ensures the consistent use of the terminology. Concordance also plays an important role in the consistency of terminology, since it provides the capability of searching for a term in the translation memory in order to see how it was translated in the past. So while such translators can claim that CAT tools are not necessary for them, they certainly cannot deny the advantages that they offer them.

c ) Translators of literature and non-editable files

Obviously, translators of literary texts do not need to invest in CAT software. These tools offer no function that can “ease” their type of work. Finally, there are also colleagues who mostly work with various texts (diplomas, transcripts, contracts, etc.), which, however, are only available in hard copy and cannot be scanned or their scanned copy is of poor quality and its conversion to editable format (e.g. to a Word file) has poor results. This is also a case, where CAT tools cannot help, although we should note that some have a built-in optical character recognition (OCR) plug-in in case we have a scanned copy of good quality.

Available options

A translator who decides today to acquire a CAT tool has plenty of available options, with different capabilities and a wide price range​​. The same program is often offered in different versions with decreasing price depending on how limited its functions are.

The most popular choices include programs, such as SDL Trados Studio, Wordfast Pro, MemoQ, Déjà Vu, Across and Star Transit. These programs primarily offer an independent interface, where all processes of the translation workflow take place, among which the word count, the creation and management of translation memories and terminology databases and, of course, the translation of various file types. The full versions are not always affordable, but many offer free versions with limited functionality, for example a limited number of words or files types that can be translated with it. That way they try to accommodate the needs of the translation offices looking for people who can work with these programs, but who may not be able to buy the full version.

Some programs, such as Metatexis or Wordfast Classic, are integrated and operated from within Microsoft Word and therefore are a more “user-friendly” option for those seeking a more familiar working environment. Another advantage is that their price is usually much more affordable.

There are also free solutions that one can choose, like OmegaT and Anaphraseus, with a decent amount of functions that covers the basic needs of a translator.

Finally, the latest trends in the field of CAT tools have adopted cloud technology, offering a different approach to the translation process, the management of language resources and the billing of services. Some indicative solutions of this kind are Translation Workspace, XTM Cloud and Memsource. In this case, the memories and glossaries are stored in the cloud or on the servers of the clients and the translation process takes place either via web browsers, or through standalone applications. These tools are gaining ground as they save time and money for project management, removing the dozens of e-mails with plenty of attachments and do not require the installation of programs on the translator’s computer. Moreover, they enable the simultaneous work of several translators in a specific file giving them access to shared translation memories and glossaries. The cost is usually carried by the translation agency, since the access to the online application or the use of the individual program is free. If we want to use these tools independently as our main TM solution, pricing usually follows the practice of Software as a Service (SaaS), where instead of a one-off payment, we pay the service per month or per number of words for translation.

To sum up, it is clear that the translator who wishes to acquire a CAT tool has the ability to select from a wide range of options that can meet any need and budget. Given the fact that the acquisition of such a tool is an important investment for the career of a translator, there are many factors that one must take into account before reaching a final decision. These factors include the range of the program’s functions, the interface, the file types it supports, the ease of learning it, the demand from the customers, the technical support options and, of course, the price. The precise identification of our professional needs and the proper evaluation of the benefits of each program will make our choice more targeted and will increase our chances to find the right assistant for our demanding work.