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What’s a CAT Tool? Computer-Assisted Translation: Definition and types

If you know or have worked with a translator, you’ve likely heard them mention their “CAT tool.” Some are taken aback and assume they meant CAD tools, a type of software that aids in graphic design.

Even if someone nails the pronunciation, you may still wonder what CAT tools are. The truth is, not too many people know about what CAT tools are, and fewer know how CAT tools work. If you match this description, don’t fret. Everything you need to know about translation with CAT tools is just a quick read away.

What is a CAT tool?

A CAT tool isn’t a pet, but it can be similarly supportive. (Speaking of cats… research says most translators own cats… #KarenIsATranslator)

CAT is an acronym that stands for computer-assisted translation. Not to be confused with a translation management system (TMS), though. More on TMS tools in the section below.

A CAT tool is a software program that helps translators with various stages of the translation process. These tools for translation work assist linguists in lots of time-consuming tasks, from retrieving past translations that can be reused to running quality assurance checks on the finished product.

CAT tools first became available for commercial use around the mid-1990s. Since then, they’ve become an essential tool for translators and a key part of the translation industry, with most translators using some form of CAT tool to increase their efficiency and productivity.

Some of the most popular CAT tools on the market today include:

  • MemoQ
  • Smartcat
  • Trados Studio
  • Wordfast
  • OmegaT
  • Phrase (ex Memsource)

The decade that ensued the release of the first CAT tools saw a dramatic improvement in usability, stability, and processing power, with many of the features we take for granted today becoming available.

For example, the integration with machine translation technology and cloud-based solutions was a game-changer for the industry, as it allowed for real-time collaboration between translators and clients located anywhere in the world.

How does a CAT tool work?

Most tools for translation work follow similar principles. For example, most CAT tools work by segmenting the source text and presenting each segment (usually a sentence) in a visually digestible fashion. The most common format places the original text on a left-hand column and empty corresponding spaces on the right-hand column.

Translators can then work with each corresponding section separately without getting lost in the original content they’re translating. Here’s a look at the common style of interface you’ll find:

CAT tools sample segmentation

Translators then work on each segment one by one, inputting their translations into the empty space on the right. Once all segments are ready, the CAT tool will stitch everything back together in its original order, providing a complete translation in the same format as the source text.

Most CAT tools also come with a number of features and functionalities that help streamline the translation process. This can include glossaries, translation memories, spell-checkers, and more.

It’s important to note that not all CAT tools are created equal—some will have more features than others. It’s up to you to decide which tool is the best fit for your needs.

Computer-assisted translation examples

Let’s look at some scenarios where computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools come into play and demonstrate their effectiveness in aiding translators. These examples showcase the practical applications of CAT tools and how they streamline the translation process.

CAT tool translation example 1: Translating a technical manual

Imagine a translator working on the translation of a complex technical manual for a new piece of machinery. The manual contains detailed instructions and specifications, and maintaining consistent terminology is of utmost importance.

A CAT tool becomes an invaluable companion for translators in achieving this goal efficiently and effectively. As the translator progresses through the document, the tool automatically stores each translated segment along with its source text in the memory. This repository of past translations becomes a valuable resource for future projects, enabling the translator to retrieve and reuse previously translated segments to ensure thar the same technical terms and phrases are consistently used across the manual.

CAT tool translation example 2: Translating a marketing brochure

In the realm of marketing, visual appeal and design play a vital role in capturing the audience’s attention and conveying a brand’s message effectively. When translating marketing brochures, maintaining the same format as the source document becomes essential to preserve visual impact.

If translators use a CAT tool, they can focus on crafting compelling translations while relying on the CAT tool’s ability to export the translated content in the same format as the source document. Whether it’s a beautifully designed PDF brochure or a web page with intricate formatting, the CAT tool ensures that the translated version mirrors the original. No need for extensive formatting adjustments or risking any layout discrepancies!

CAT tool example 3: User interface localisation

Some software localisation platforms on the market come equipped with embedded CAT tools that offer translators a staging environment to preview their work. This feature is particularly valuable when it comes to translating and localising user interfaces (UI) for software applications.

UI localization involves adapting the user interface elements, such as buttons, menus, dialog boxes, and error messages, to suit the target language and culture. CAT tools play a crucial role in this process by providing a visual representation of the translated software’s interface. This allows them to ensure that the translations fit seamlessly into the available space, respect character limits, and maintain a visually pleasing layout.

Types of computer-assisted translation

While the term computer-assisted translation makes one assume that any software that helps streamline the translation process falls under this category, we only refer to a program as a CAT tool if it’s a human-in-the-loop tool with features like translation memories and glossaries.

Other software programs often mentioned in the same breath as CAT tools – but which don’t technically belong to the category – include machine translation (MT) engines, which autonomously translate content using algorithms, and translation management systems (TMS) that provide an administrative layer to manage tasks and resources.

Then we’ve got quality assurance (QA) tools, which linguists and project managers use to detect formatting and linguistic issues in a document, translation memory alignment tools, terminology management software, and more. None of these programs are considered CAT tools – but they can be used together with them to increase efficiency in the translation process.

In other words, within translation software, we find six main groups:

  1. CAT tools: These are the programs that segment the text and enable the human translator to work more efficiently by providing additional tools, such as translation memories, glossaries, and quality assurance checks.
  2. Machine translation (MT) engines: These are programs that automatically translate content using algorithms.
  3. Translation management systems (TMS): These are administrative tools used to manage tasks, resources, workflows, and finances. Here’s an overview of the 10 best translation management systems on the market today.
  4. Quality assurance (QA) tools: Programs used by linguists and project managers to detect formatting and linguistic issues in a document. Most CAT tools include some form of QA checking.
  5. Terminology management software: Programs used to create, store, and manage terminology databases.
  6. Translation memory alignment tools: Programs used to link source and target files of translated content to create translation memories, i.e., databases that store translations of words, phrases and sentences.

Is Google Translate a CAT tool?

However intelligent Google Translate (and other similar programs) are getting, the answer is a big no. Google Translate, and similar machine-translation services, don’t have what it takes to work as a replacement or alternative for Computer-Assisted Translation tools.

Machine translation works with artificial intelligence in an attempt to replace the work of human translators, which is why there’s no human involvement in Google Translate output text (unless it is post-edited by a human).

Computer-aided translation, on the other hand, is done by human translators who use software as a tool for more efficiency. Think of a CAT tool as a sous chef in the kitchen – they’re meant to accomplish quite a bit, like mixing ingredients and preparing plates but aren’t in charge of cooking all the food and adding the final touches.

In simpler words:

  • Google Translate is an example of machine translation (whose output should always be reviewed by a professional, human linguist). The machine does most of the work.
  • A CAT tool involves machine-aided human translation. The human does most of the work.

There’s a lot to say about machine translation, especially around its evolution from statistical engines to neural networks, so you might want to check out this blog post for more information about the world of machine translation tools.

Benefits of using a CAT tool

There are quite a few reasons why translators flock to CAT tools. Put simply, these programs reduce the time and effort required from each translator and make it easier to get projects done. But, for clarification, take a closer look at exactly how a CAT tool can help and their features:

  • Integrated systems for importing things like dictionaries, term bases, and reference documents
  • Quality assurance for common human errors in writing
  • Text segmentation
  • Full implementation of translation memories, facilitating consistency in the creation and reimplementation of words, phrases, and sentences for future translations
  • Export translations in the original document’s format
  • Collaboration features where several linguists can work simultaneously on the same project
Benefits of using CAT Tools

Proper implementation of a CAT tool

Adding tools for translation work to your stack is a cost-effective way to accelerate the translation process. However, for this to be the case, it’s essential for workers in the field to implement them properly. Where, then, does a CAT tool fit into the equation?

As you likely already know, any translation project involves:

  • A customer enquiry
  • The analysis of the project at hand
  • A quote with a turn-around-time estimation
  • The identification of resources
  • Translation
  • Editing
  • Proofreading
  • Final review or QA
  • Delivery

These are all based on interactions between a language provider’s internal teams (i.e., the translation company) and the client.

While there are programs that can facilitate working out information during the customer enquiry,  CAT tool implementation starts during the project analysis phase. It provides an approachable breakdown for a project of new words, repetition of content from previous projects, and what is referred to as “fuzzy matches,” also known as partial matches with what’s in the existing translation memory (if any are in place).

In a large majority of cases, a CAT tool sees the most action during translation, editing, and proofreading (known as the TEP process). This is where almost all modern translators consider CAT tools necessary for working with source and target text.

Where some might differ, though, is whether they’re vital for the final review process. They can still provide value during this step, but a section of the translation community believes it can negatively impact the results. That is, they consider the final review a chance to analyse the target text on its own before delivery – any information from the source text, at this point, might alter the results in somewhat unexpected ways.

The benefits of a CAT tool for companies using language services

The benefits gained from using a CAT tool aren’t exclusive to translators. Clients, when consistent with a particular translator or team of translators, will also see major benefits and more effective results. This is thanks to the build-up of a translation memory dedicated and tailored specifically to their business. Take a quick look at the primary advantages that clients enjoy when their hired translators work with CAT tools:

Improved consistency

Consistent terminology is among the most critical elements in translation projects. A CAT tool helps ensure consistency through their translation memory capabilities and the creation of a tailored and separate term base.

Term bases and glossaries

Term bases, also known as translation glossaries, are part of a CAT tool’s in-built terminology modules. It’s important to note that these are flexible and can integrate with external databases.

Term bases store terms that are specific for a job, but are sometimes applied to other projects. Translators (and managers at translation-buying companies) work with these by entering certain words in two or more languages. Then they can add term descriptions, comments regarding term usage, and other specifics to keep in mind for future translations.

Here’s what a term base in a CAT tool looks like:

Example of a Term Base in CAT Tools
Term base in a CAT Tool

Translation memories within a CAT tool

Translation memory (TM) sounds somewhat similar to a term base, but they’re quite different. A translation memory is a separate database that holds onto previously used translations. By storing past translations, a translation memory draws on this data to reuse words, phrases, and sentences for future translations. These segments can vary in length and the software chooses them based on their contextual relevance for the project at hand.

As a translator works, the database expands, and the linguist can ensure that their work stays consistent over time without having to flip through pages of data to remember exactly how a company or client preferred a given translation in a specific context.

With a CAT tool, you can categorise translation memories for easier and more organised access. Some of the classifications include industry, project, topic, client, and language pair. Best of all, translators can tweak these parameters and limit them to specific projects, allowing better protection of proprietary content.

This is what a translation memory window typically looks like inside a CAT tool:

Example of a Translation Memory in CAT tools
Translation memory in a CAT tool

Quicker turn-around

Turn-around speed is a universal priority, and this is where CAT tools make the largest impact. As a translator works and fills the term base and translation memory, output speeds increase exponentially.

Stronger translation memory means more consistency and almost always implies faster translation delivery times. As the TM gets populated project after project, translators work faster and faster each time because they can retrieve parts of the content from the memory. This, of course, is as long as the content is somewhat repetitive among projects.

Reduced costs

Possibly only second in line to turn-around speeds, reduced costs are also a priority. Translators can import your files into their CAT-tool project and run statistic analyses for essential information before getting started. They can check how many words require translation from scratch, and whether or not there are any that are re-usable from previous translations.

Prices can change drastically if most of the content is recyclable, as the translator can work faster and more efficiently with less effort. In these cases, you can expect some kind of discount. It’s worth mentioning that not every translator offers price reductions because checking the quality and adequacy of the TM matches also demands a lot of time, so it’s important you check with them beforehand.

Higher quality

Translators that use CAT tools also implement them in the editing process. The programs can run a translation quality control process and detect errors that a human will often miss. You might recognise some of these common mistakes that CAT tools catch on a regular basis:

  • Double spaces
  • Typos in words and in numbers
  • Spelling errors
  • Misplaced or missing placeholders and tags
  • Empty segments or missing translations
  • In-document inconsistencies (same translation for the same source segment)
  • Capitalisation
  • Repeated words
  • … and many more.

CAT tools help improve translation quality by identifying mistakes in various contexts. They’re not limited to a particular field, although it’s possible to configure them for better adaptation to certain industries, or to enter customised parametres.

I want to use a CAT tool for my project!

CAT tools really are a translator’s best friend. Speed is the most obvious benefit, turning intimidating projects into more approachable segments. They bring a lot more to the table, though. Translation memories, term bases and glossaries, and quality control ensure optimal results and happier clients.

One of the best qualities, perhaps, of CAT tools is their adaptability. Some strategies or techniques are limited depending on the industry they’re used for or a client’s time and resource constraints. However, CAT tools are flexible and offer an opportunity to work quickly, efficiently, and accurately on a single, multiple, or mixed project simultaneously.

Interested in experiencing the power of CAT tools for Spanish translation in your projects? Let’s talk and find the best way to implement these tools for your content.

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Maria Scheibengraf Crisol Translation Services SaaS Translation Services

Author: Maria Scheibengraf

Maria Scheibengraf is an English-to-Spanish marketing and SEO translator specialised in software (SaaS, martech, fintech), and Operations Manager at Crisol Translation Services, which she co-founded in 2016. With a solid background in programming and marketing, Maria has an in-depth understanding of the technical intricacies involved in software programs, websites, and digital platforms. Maria is also the author of The SEO Translation Bible.

  • Avatar for Steph
    Steph 4:14 am

    This was a very insightful blog, thank you! I especially appreciate how you lay out CAT tools as having very positive impacts on the efficiency and productivity for translators – many conversations tend to focus of the negative sides – while they are also valid, it is undeniable that CAT tools are now an integral part, not only of the localisation industry, but also in areas where TM and term bases are fairly set such as legal and technical translation! They aren’t going anywhere, so we have to work with them (and use them to our advantage~)
    There is a fascinating article by Ignacio Garcia which highlights the event of post-editing and the significant impact it has on the translation industry. While Garcia brings attention to the tendency to rely on TM pretty much solely, and whether this is a good idea, depending on the industry, he also acknowledges the ubiquity of these softwares and systems, and discusses how translators can better make them collaborators in projects, instead of one working for the other. For many reasons mentioned above, such as the ability to Quality Assure formatting and correct spelling etc., I think CAT tools are the translator’s best friend!

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