CAT tools?

The acronym CAT is used quite often in the world of technical translations. Despite the way of writing and reading it, this is not related to our furry friends. CAT stands for “Computer Assisted Translation” and is a form of translation where a human being translates texts using computer software designed to support and facilitate the translation process. This is particularly helpful when it comes to technical translations, as the relevant documents often have a high percentage of repetitions.

Most of the CAT software programmes store previous translated source texts and their equivalent target text in a database (Translation Memory – TM) and retrieve related sentences during the translation of new texts. After the translation of each portion of the text (called a “segment”), the programme stores the new translation and moves to the next segment. As the translator works through a document, if the programme finds a matching sentence in the TM, it provides a previous translation for re-use. Many CAT tools also allow the translator to manage his own terminology bank (Terminology Database) in an electronic form, or to align each segment of completed translations in order to determine which segments belong together and to build a new TM.

Trados, Deja Vu, Star Transit and Wordfast are some of the most popular CAT tools. These are widely used among professional translators, as they help to improve the quality and consistency of translations, especially technical translations, and also to improve turnaround times.

Even though both involve the use of a computer, CAT tools differ from Machine Translation software such as Google Translate, Systran or Babylon. Machine Translation software only performs automatic substitution of words for one language for words in another, without keeping any consistency of context or concordance. That is why texts automatically translated using Machine Translation are often poor in quality and very difficult to understand.

Below is an example of the inaccuracy of Machine Translations:

Source Text (English)Target text (Italian)
Tough, you think you’ve got the stuff
You’re telling me and anyone
Duro, pensi di aver preso la roba
Stai dicendo a me ea chiunque


These three sentences from the U2 song Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own have been translated using Google Translate. At this point, apart from a spelling mistake (“ea chiunque” instead of “a chiunque“) and wrong sentence order (the second one should go first and vice versa), any professional Italian translator would have noticed the great misunderstanding that this translation could cause. In fact, if we translate the resulting Italian text back into English, without using any Translation software and without looking at the original English, this is the meaning of the three sentences in Italian:


Text (Italian)Meaning (English)
Duro, pensi di aver preso la roba
Stai dicendo a me ea chiunque
Tough guy, you think you’ve just taken drugs
You’re telling me and everybody


Even if they’re quick, free and accessible to everybody, Machine Translation software programmes never guarantee good results. On the other hand, CAT tools use technology in a very intelligent way: they combine the quality of the product of human translation with the all advantages of the latest technologies in terms of time and costs. Do any translators out there have any favourite programmes or recommendations?

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