CAT-Tools “for Dummies”

CAT-Tools “for Dummies”

Cat and toy

I hate to disappoint the animal lovers among my readers, but the term CAT-tool has nothing to do with our furry friends. CAT is the acronym for “computer-assisted translation,” which, in turn, has only marginally to do with machine translation. Computer-assisted translation simply refers to software or apps that help translators with the technical aspects of a translation such that the translator can concentrate on what matters: the translation. By technical aspects I mean tasks such as the following:

  • Looking up terms in a dictionary or in a library of previously translated text, a so-called “translation memory”
  • Ensuring terminological consistency
  • Copying numbers in the correct formats from the source into the target text
  • Various QA checks that involve numbers, formats, punctuation, etc.
  • Applying the same formatting as the source to the target text
  • And many more tasks that can be automated in a simple way

Every CAT-tool on the market that I know of accomplishes the automation of some or all of the aforementioned tasks by chopping up the source text into smaller pieces, so-called segments. A segment can be one sentence, but depending on the language combination, the nature of the text, and a variety of other factors, a segment can be a smaller or larger unit than one sentence. This segmentation is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing, because it enables the software to perform the aforementioned tasks efficiently; and a curse, because the segmentation can lead to a target text that reads more like a never-ending bulleted list of dictionary entries than a fluid text that’s enjoyable to read. Therefore, depending on the type of text to be translated, CAT-tools can be either indispensable or an overcomplication. CAT-tools are indispensable to ensure a consistent terminology for texts such as patents, manuals, textbooks, and any text with repetitive content such as annual reports and/or where a consistent terminology is absolutely required. On the other hand, using a CAT-tool to translate literary works may not be the best approach.

Which CAT-tool do you recommend?

This is the question that other translators have asked me recently quite often, although I am no CAT-tool expert. I just know how to use a few of them and learned most of the functionality by doing. There are so many tools on the market, in various price ranges and with various functionalities, for various operating systems that I cannot really answer this question. In addition, I think the answer depends highly on individual preferences, language combinations, and the type of text.

A good tool should at least have all of the following capabilities:

  • A workflow that fits your specific needs and preferences
  • All required functions for source and target language
  • Ability to handle the source file format
  • Terminology management capabilities
  • Ability to export and import translation memories
  • Ability to perform a spell-check, either tool-intern or extern (I prefer the latter because I run the Duden spell check for German externally, which is more complete than any other spell check I have found)
  • Ability to perform a QA check, either tool-intern or extern

Some people have additional requirements such as the ability to work with voice recognition software etc. The above list is the minimum functionality I expect of a CAT-tool. Of course, another consideration is price, as well as frequency of updates and availability of technical support.

Most tool vendors offer fully functional trial versions. Thus, I would recommend to download these trial versions of various tools and spend half a day or so trying out the various tools on a real text to see which tool works best for you.

Here, I want to again emphasize the issue of segmentation. Some tools segment better than others, and some tools have a better layout than others to help you avoid overly choppy writing. I noticed a marked difference in my style between tools, simply because of the different layouts. Some tools require one editing step more for me after the translation to make the text flow more naturally.

This is definitely something to keep in mind when choosing a tool, because after a while, you will be more or less stuck with that tool. Over the years, I have collected quite a few glossaries and created my own termbases with terms that I researched over many hours in total. These glossaries and termbases are in the format of one specific tool, and exporting and importing these into another tool would require too much effort to make it worthwhile. There is a common format for translation memories (TMX) that makes them easy to transfer from one tool to another. Unfortunately, the same is not (yet?) true for translation projects and termbases, which every tool saves in its own proprietary format. Sometimes termbases can be exported as well — however, more often than not this is only possible for the source and target term pairs, but not for annotations and categorizations of the terms. That is, the expertise that went into the creation of the termbases cannot be transferred, which is what makes these termbases so valuable in the first place.

Therefore: Choose wisely, grasshopper!

Carola F Berger


Carola F. Berger is a German-English patent translator with a PhD in physics and a master’s degree in engineering physics. She is ATA certified for translation from German into English and from English into German and owns and operates CFB Scientific Translations LLC. Carola serves as webmaster on the NCTA Board of Directors and is also the Administrator of ATA’s Science and Technology Division.

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