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Translation Memory: Benefits and Pitfalls

Translation Memory (CAT)

The many advantages of working with a Translation Memory (TM) cannot be overstated. Although a Translation Memory is useful for just about any type of non-literary translation; they tend to work best with texts which are to some degree repetitive, such as manuals or legal documents. TMs enable a translator to be consistent in translating the same phrase, in the same way, each time it occurs. That said, there are some potential pitfalls too!

The most common doubt that people have about TM, and translation software (CAT Tools) in general, is that it seems to go against the conventional wisdom of translation. Surely, people say, translators should translate the sense or core meaning of a text, rather than individual sentences? This is undoubtedly correct in the case of a novel, or even marketing collateral. However, with technical documents, consistency and accuracy are essential, and there should be far less room for personal interpretation.

Although it is true that there is rarely only one correct translation of a document, or even a sentence; when translating a technical term or concept that has been established — either by legislation or industry-wide consensus — it is vitally important that this standard is adhered to.

Potential pitfalls when working with Translation Memory

The big picture

A serious potential issue is that a translator would start to think in terms of sentences, or parts of sentences, rather than the text as whole. Naturally, it is essential for the translator to have in mind the unity of the document; and to take care to avoid “missing the wood for the trees”, as the saying goes. This is a potential problem for all translators, however, not just those who use TM or indeed, any CAT tools.

Part of the art of translation is to think simultaneously at both a micro- and a macro- level; that is to say, about the precise, grammatical or terminological details, as well as the broader thrust of a document. In fact, TM makes it easier to do both.

The translation process

On a related note, some translators dislike CAT software because it can change the nature of the translation process. That is to say, when working from scratch, the translator recasts the document in its entirety. With a TM, some say, it is less about establishing an authentic syntax in the target; and more about adapting the TM’s suggestions until they are close enough to authentic to be passable.

There is undoubtedly a risk of this happening. For example, if given a match of 70% similarity, even a conscientious translator is unlikely to rebuild the sentence from the ground up — not least because they will find it hard to get the fuzzy match that the software has already suggested, out of their head.

Professional translators can overcome this challenge with experience and training. If someone has been working with CAT tools for a significant portion of their professional life, they develop strategies to deal with it.

Initial outlay

Another potentially prohibitive factor to be considered is the cost of a TM, both in terms of the initial outlay on the software, and the training required. Although open-source translation software is available, it has so far failed to gain a foothold in the market. Therefore, most Language Service Providers (LSPs) pay for a fully-licensed package. And while TM-use has become a component in most translation courses, money and time still have to be invested in training new translators to work with it.

Furthermore, the differences between the various TMs on the market means that, even if a translator has worked with a TM in the past, they may need to ‘re-learn’ a new system.

There is no getting round these initial investments. However, we believe that the huge advantages to both translator and customer that TMs offer make the initial outlay worthwhile.

On the plus side…

No more formatting or layout issues

One of the great beauties of a TM is that it extracts the text from the document, regardless of how that document is formatted, and reinserts the translation automatically. This means that translators can now forget about, what was some years ago, the great bane of a translator’s life; namely fiddling around with text boxes, bold or italicised type, or poorly-formatted Word files. Integrating desktop publishing and translation can be a hugely important aspect of many projects. For a project in which the final presentation is vital — for example, a corporate brochure or Annual Report — the TM neatly sidesteps what was a often a messy and time-consuming part of the translation process.

Consistency is guaranteed

Most of all, Translation Memories (and well-maintained Glossaries) guarantee consistency across all the translation work we do for a particular client. Naturally, we build a TM for each of our clients. So regardless of which translator works on a given text, we use consistent terminology in all translations for them.

Attaching a Glossary to the TM, enables us to store industry-related terms. This guarantees a precise and accurate translation of technical, financial, or legal vocabulary.

Value for money

Most of all, the TM saves each translation that we do for each client. So when updating a document, most of the translation is already complete. The TM will ‘find’ and isolate new or modified text — and the translator only needs to work on these segments. Also, clients often find there is overlapping content in their materials — the mandatory legal text, for example. With a TM, this repeated text only needs translating once, ever.

Translation Memories improve workflow and allow greater flexibility in translation. TM databases adapt themselves to the needs of different clients and different contexts. They are highly customisable, and the bigger they get, the better!

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