CAT is short for computer-assisted (or computer-aided) translation. CAT tools have been around since the late 1980s, enabling a form of translation, which relies on computer software. Over the years, this software has become more and more sophisticated, gradually evolving into powerful tools that are now used by most major companies in the language services sector.
Most CAT tools consist of the following main subsystems:
- Translation memory (TM). The core element of every CAT tool. A translation memory system stores “segments” (sentences, paragraphs or chunks of text) of previously translated source text in a database, along with the target text. These segments are then retrieved for reuse when a new text is being translated.
- Terminology database (or term base). Allows the translator to store individual terms which can then be retrieved while translating a document, either via a separate pane within the CAT tool interface, where the term will automatically be displayed, or by using hot keys to view the entry in the term base.
- Alignment tool. A tool that allows you to “recycle” a previously translated source text and its corresponding target text by splitting them up into segments and matching the source text segments with their equivalent target text segments. The resulting alignment pairs can then be imported into a translation memory or the aligned document can be used as reference material.
- Project management/Workflow components. Components designed to facilitate and optimise the project management process and workflow of a project.
- Machine translation (MT) module. Used to pre-translate a document or suggest possible translations by “predicting” the translation the human translator is going to produce.
One common misconception is that CAT is the same thing as machine translation. In actual fact, CAT and machine translation are two quite different things. As the name implies, CAT incorporates machine translation, so that the human translator is assisted but not replaced by the computer, whereas in machine translation the translation process is fully automatic, without the need for human input.
This means that a CAT tool won’t just do the job on its own. In order to be able to start using the tool, the translator has to familiarise themselves with the basic functions of the software; a fact that may cause many technophobes to avoid CAT tools for as long as they can!
However, there aren’t that many features which the translator needs to master in order to get started. Also, these key features don’t vary too much between the major CAT tools available today. And given that many features and elements incorporated in the tool are very similar to those used in common Microsoft Windows applications, getting to grips with a CAT tool shouldn’t require too much effort.
So what are CAT tools good for?
CAT tools are designed to be used for document translation, and they are especially useful for technical, repetitive texts and large-volume translations. Due to their nature and functionality, they probably won’t be as beneficial for more creative types of translation, like audiovisual translation, literary translation or transcreation.
They are also very likely to prove beneficial to the work of translators in a number of ways:
Productivity. If a TM contains lots of words and phrases which are similar to the material to be translated, a large number of previously translated text segments can be reused for the new project. This will considerably speed up the translation process, as fewer sections will have to be translated from scratch. Even if an extensive TM is not available, relevant material can be imported from previous translations by using the alignment feature. And as the TM is continuously updated during translation, it will become more and more useful with every job. Other features like automatically suggesting words while typing or automatically inserting repeated words, sentences or paragraphs, reduce the amount of typing and further enhance speed and productivity.
Consistency. Consistency of terminology is particularly important in financial, legal, medical or technical texts. Using a TM and/or terminology database will make it easier to ensure consistency throughout the project.
Proofreading. Being able to view a source text segment next to the corresponding target text segment makes proofreading easier and more efficient.
Analysing, assessing and managing documents. CAT tools can analyse documents with regard to factors like number of words and amount of text matching TM content, which can be very useful when assessing the scope of a project and calculating the price, the amount of time and the number of linguists that will be needed for the job.
Working with a CAT tool is not just a case of pressing a button and waiting for the software to do the translation; these tools require a degree of expertise on the part of the translator.
Unlike machine translation, CAT tools are only there to assist the translator, who remains an essential part of this semi-automatic process. Yet the major CAT tools are easy to handle, and when used in the right way, they can be useful in facilitating and speeding up the translation process, ultimately enhancing quality.