CAT Tools 101: A Crash Guide to Computer-Assisted Translation

November 2, 2021
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What do you need to know to start using computer-assisted translation (CAT) in your business? Which types of CAT tools will best suit your needs?
CAT tools are a key type of software in the translation process. They provide a specialized environment for translators to perform their job in the most efficient way possible.
When you’re just getting started with translation, it can be hard to know what features you really need in a CAT tool. Or whether you need to purchase a tool at all.
Let’s have a look at some CAT tool fundamentals…

What you need to know about CAT tools

If you’re considering adding a CAT tool to your workflow, you are likely in one of two situations:
  1. You are a translator or translation provider and you need CAT tools for your clients.
  2. You work for a global company and you want a way to handle translations in-house.
Which of these most matches your situation?
Your answer will influence what you will need from a CAT tool.
  • If you are a freelance translator, you will likely need to be proficient at using various CAT tools as different providers and clients may use different systems.
  • If you are a translation provider, you want to use a CAT tool that will be efficient and intuitive for both your clients and your translators.
  • If you are a global business… your situation is more complex…

What global businesses need to know about CAT tools

For global businesses, the task of translation is almost never performed in-house.
Unless your company is huge and you have significant translation resources, you will likely use a translation provider. This provider will manage translations carried out by a combination of staff and freelance translators.
Even the world’s largest global companies use external translation providers. Those companies that manage the translations in-house still use freelance translators to carry out the translations.
In this case, it’s questionable whether you actually need to purchase a CAT tool yourself.
Unless you have a very good reason to purchase your own CAT tool, it’s usually a better idea to let the translation provider use their tools. This will be most efficient for everyone involved as most companies significantly underestimate the skill and effort involved in supporting a CAT tool.
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How does computer-assisted translation work?

Computer-assisted translation works by converting source content into easily translatable chunks of text. It separates what needs to be translated and what needs to be left alone. The various features of a CAT tool facilitate the translation process and help to ensure consistent translation quality.
Segmenting of text is a key feature of CAT tools. It is essential for creating a database of translation matches that can then be reused in future translations (a translation memory). The process also ensures that any sections of the content that should not be changed by the translator (for example software code, design elements) remain untouched.
The first step with most CAT tools is to load the source text into the tool. The basic way to do this is to load the file into the tool manually. Most tools support a wide variety of file types. Alternatively, you can link the CAT tool with a translation management system that can automatically load new files for translation.
A variety of tool types and features are classed as computer-assisted translation, some of which are listed below.
Often, multiple features are combined into the same tool or suite of tools, which improves interoperability. However, there are also some stand-alone tools for specific CAT functionalities, such as terminology management or translation alignment.

5 types of computer-assisted translation

Here are 5 functionalities that are often included in CAT tools:

1. Translation memories

Whenever you see a software package that claims to reduce the cost of your translations, it is usually referring to the translation memory (TM) feature.
A TM stores all your previous translations for a language pair (for example English to Japanese). When a new document is added, the TM checks to see if any parts of the new content have previously been translated. It then automatically suggests these translations for the human translator to accept or change.

2. Terminology management

If you are operating in a specialist field, such as finance or automotive, you will have particular technical terms that need to be translated in a specific way. This is also true for company-specific terms like trademarks.
Terminology management tools hold a centralized glossary where these terms are stored, ensuring that they are always translated correctly.

3. In-context editing/review

As mentioned above, a key feature of CAT tools is that they separate the text from its original context. For example, when translating a PowerPoint file no formatting or images will be visible in the CAT tool itself. This makes the translation more efficient but it removes the context.
Some CAT tools include an in-context review feature that shows the translations in their final formatting. While this is useful in some cases, it can have its downsides. In-context editing often reduces the speed of translation and the review is not always reliable as the rendering can be inaccurate.

4. Dictionaries and grammar checking

CAT tools often include dictionaries and grammar checking in the target language. Other times, this functionality is provided by a third-party tool.
As part of this functionality, some CAT tools also include consistency checking. The tool will identify if the same source phrase has been translated differently in different parts of the same document. Some CAT tools also allow content creators to append comments to content, providing extra context for the translators.
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5. Translation alignment

Translation alignment tools are often promoted by software companies as being a time-saving tool to automatically create translation memories from your previous translations.
The idea of an alignment tool is that it takes both the source content and translated content. It then automatically compares the differences between the two, splits the text into segments, and creates a translation memory based on them.
In practice, we find that alignment tools rarely perform well.
Translation alignment tools often produce copious errors and the process ends up needing excessive manual correction anyway. We find it much more efficient to have the translators manually create the translation memory from your previous translations.

How to start using CAT tools in your business

What should be your first step when looking for a CAT tool for your business? There are many different tools on the market and only some of them will be suitable for your needs.
A good place to start is to look at the above list and determine which types of computer-assisted translation will be necessary for the needs of your business.
If you aren’t sure which CAT features your global business will need, just get in contact with one of our strategists and we will gladly help you out.

Remember the CAT tool management cost

And remember… if you aren’t performing the translations in-house, you should ensure that you have a very good reason to invest in your own CAT tool over using that of a translation provider.
The main issue with computer-assisted translation is not the tools themselves, it’s the management of those tools. How you use those tools is far more important than just having the tools in the first place.
If you are looking for other ways to improve your translation process, download a free copy of our eBook 10 Profitable Tips to Streamline Your Translation Workflow.