Translation Memory (TM): What Is It and What Are Its Main Benefits?
A few decades ago, translation was a completely manual process. Paper dictionaries, encyclopedias, pen and paper, and good old human memory were a translator’s only tools. This process was both time-consuming and costly. Today, however, there are many digital tools available to assist translators in their work, and one of the most important of these is translation memory (TM) technology.
Computers and the internet have changed the face of the translation and localization industry. It’s now possible to access vast quantities of information quickly and easily, and translation software enables translators to work more efficiently and produce higher quality work. From machine translation (MT) to computer-assisted translation (CAT), there are now many tools available to make the translator’s job easier. In this article, we’ll take a look at what a translation memory is and explore some of its main benefits.
In this post:
- What is a translation memory?
- How does a translation memory work?
- Types of translation memory matches
- Concordance search in translation memories
- Benefits of using a translation memory
- Translation memory vs glossary
- Translation memory maintenance and management
- What is translation memory alignment?
- Best practices for translation memory use
What is a translation memory?
A translation memory (TM) is a database that stores translated text segments (called “entries”). When a translator starts working on a new project, the TM software will search the database for entries that match the source text and suggest translations for any new segments.
This is a huge time-saver, as it means that translators don’t have to start from scratch every time they work on a new project. It also helps to ensure consistency, as it’s possible to re-use translations that have already been approved and ensure that repeated segments are translated in the same way each time.
How does a translation memory work?
Translation memories usually come as a feature in computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools or translation management systems (TMS). When a translator opens a new project in their CAT tool or TMS editor, the software will scan the source text and compare it to the entries in the translation memory. Where there are matches, the TM will suggest a translation for the new segment.
The translator can then choose to accept, reject or modify the suggested translation before moving on to the next segment. Once a project is completed, any new segments that have been translated will be added to the translation memory, ready to be used next time.
Types of translation memory matches
There are three main types of translation memory matches:
1. Exact or perfect match: The source text segment is an exact match for a segment in the translation memory. In most CAT tools, an exact match will be highlighted in green or marked with a 100% icon. It’s possible to pre-translate a whole project by inserting all exact match translations and “locking” them, so they can’t be changed.
2. Context match: This is an exact match that also shares the same context or surroundings. In other words, the segments before and after the match are also identical.
3. Fuzzy match: The source text segment is similar to a segment in the translation memory, but there are some slight differences. In most CAT tools, a fuzzy match will be highlighted in yellow or marked with a lower percentage icon (e.g. 75%, 50%).
Concordance search in translation memories
Sometimes, a fuzzy match will be too low to be of any use. In these cases, the translation memory will likely not suggest a translation even if a couple of terms do match. This is where concordance search comes in handy.
Concordance search enables translators to search the translation memory for segments that contain a certain term or phrase, even if the segment as a whole doesn’t match or the match is too low to be useful. This is a great way to find relevant translations for new segments, and it can be a huge time-saver.
Main benefits of using translation memories
There are many benefits of using translation memories, both for individual translators and localization businesses. Let’s take a look at some of the main ones:
Increased efficiency and productivity
Translation memories help to speed up the translation process by suggesting translations for repeated or similar segments, which means that translators can work more quickly and efficiently. Productivity gains of 30-40% are not uncommon when using TM tools.
A word of caution if you’re a translation buyer: Beware of language service providers (LSPs) or translation agencies offering discounts based on “high match rates” from translation memory. While tempting, agencies tend to pass on the cost of these discounts to translators in the form of lower rates, which can erode quality.
Improved consistency and quality
One of the main advantages of using translation memories is that they promote consistency by allowing translators to re-use approved translations and ensuring that repeated segments remain consistent. This can be a real boon for large or long-running projects, where maintaining consistent terminology and style is essential.
In software localisation projects, for example, it’s often necessary to translate user interface (UI) elements such as menus, dialog boxes, and buttons. Using a translation memory can help to ensure that these UI elements are translated in the same way each time, which is crucial for a good user experience.
Faster turnaround times
Because translation memories help to speed up the translation process, they can also lead to shorter project turnaround times. This is especially true for long-running or ongoing projects with regular updates – like agile localisation projects – where being able to quickly re-use approved translations can make a big difference.
For projects where timing is critical, working with a language service provider that uses translation memories can give you a real competitive advantage.
Because translation memories help to improve efficiency and consistency, they can also lead to cost savings in the long run. These savings don’t only concern the cost of translation itself, but also the cost of project management, quality assurance, and other related activities.
It’s important to note that while using a translation memory can save money in the long run, there is an initial investment involved in setting up and maintaining a TM. This investment can be significant for large projects, so it’s important to weigh up the costs and benefits before deciding whether or not to use translation memory technology.
Translation memory vs glossary
It’s worth noting that while translation memories and glossaries are both searchable databases of terms and phrases, they serve different purposes. A translation memory stores complete translations – full sentences or larger units of text – while a glossary only stores individual terms.
You can compare a glossary to a dictionary: It’s a reference tool that you can consult when you come across an unfamiliar term. Glossaries will normally include definitions, translations, and sometimes even contextual information to help you understand how to use a term. Product names, acronyms, and technical terms are some of the most common entries in glossaries.
Translation memories, on the other hand, are more like a phrasebook: They contain complete translations that you can re-use in future projects. Both translation memories and glossaries usually come as add-ons that you can use in conjunction with your CAT tool.
Translation memory maintenance and management
Once you’ve decided to start using translation memory, there are a few things you need to do to set it up and keep it running smoothly. These include:
- Creating a project-specific translation memory: This is a good idea if you’re working on a large or long-running project with multiple translators, as it will help to ensure consistency and avoid duplication of effort. For example, if you have both website and software localisation projects, you might want to create separate TMs for each.
- Importing previous translations: If you have existing translation files from similar projects, you can import them into your new TM to jump-start the process. Just be sure to check the quality of the imported translations before using them in your new project.
- Updating your TM regularly: As your project progresses, you’ll need to add new translations to your TM. You should also take the opportunity to review and update existing translations to ensure that they remain accurate and up-to-date.
- Identify and consolidating duplicate segments: Where there’s more than one translation for the same source text, you’ll need to choose the best one and delete the others. This will help to keep your TM streamlined and efficient.
- Getting rid of single-word segments: They’re generally not very useful (context is everything in translation!) and can clutter up your TM. As we’ve seen, glossaries can be a better solution for storing individual terms.
- Managing TMs centrally: If you’re working on large or complex projects, it can be helpful to store all your TMs in a central location. For example, translation management systems offer TM management features that can make it easier to keep track of multiple TMs and ensure that they’re kept up-to-date.
What is translation memory alignment?
Sometimes, duplicate efforts are inevitable. For example, team members from in-country offices may work on translations independently without using a CAT tool or TM, a translation vendor might fail to deliver a promised TM, or quality assurance (QA) checks may identify errors in a TM that need correcting.
In such cases, you may need to align your TM with new or updated translations. This process involves taking a new translation and matching it up with the corresponding source text in your TM. Once they’re aligned, you can then update your TM with the new translation.
There are various software tools available that can help with TM alignment, or you can align TMs manually. However, it’s generally best to leave this task to a professional if possible – they charge this work by the hour and the investment will save you a lot of time and effort in the long run.
The process generally involves uploading a set of source files and target files – in the same format – into the tool, linking them by file name, and running an automatic alignment. Once the alignment is complete, you can then download the updated TM and use it in your CAT tool as normal.
Best practices for translation memory use
While translation memories can be a valuable asset for any language service provider, it’s important to use them wisely. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your TM:
- Use your translation memory as a reference tool, not a crutch. It’s there to help you translate faster and more efficiently, not to do the job for you.
- Be prepared to invest time, effort, and resources in maintaining your TM
- Use quality assurance checks to ensure that your TM remains accurate and error-free.
- Work with translation providers who are willing to supply you with a TM of your project translations.
- Don’t try to force a TM on every type of project. If a project is very short or doesn’t lend itself to translation memory (e.g. because it’s highly creative in nature or involves multilingual SEO), it may be best to leave the TM out of it.
- Decide on your preferred format for storing and using your TM. Most CAT tools have specific formats that they work with, but you can also convert TMs into other formats if necessary.
Translation memory is a powerful tool that can save you time, money, and effort on your language projects. By following the tips above, you can ensure that you get the most out of your TM and that it remains a valuable asset for your business.
Related article: What Everybody Knows, Many Call Out, and Very Few Do Something About: The Ugly Reality of the Translation Industry
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