CAT tools – Boon or bane?

It is said these days no translator worth his salt is without his CAT. In fact, the CAT is the translator’s steroid, his performance enhancing drug. Some are literally addicted to it. Agencies these days swear by it. The translator’s market has seen an invasion of CATs in recent years. They now flood the market, purr at us, brush up against us and wave their bushy tails at us for attention. And the translator is but human, he succumbs.

But seriously, do we really need a CAT to shine at our job? I mean they do cost money and some of them quite a bit more than others. Do they really give us good value for money? Especially when we consider the fact that agencies pay us less for repeated words in the source text, is it worthwhile to invest in something that might decrease our earnings? Let’s find out.

Advantages of CAT

Ever since I saw the amazing processing power of the personal computer (sans a hard drive) as compared to an electronic typewriter, I have been interested in technology. However, I remember the long and painful teething period I went through transitioning from the typewriter to the computer. So, while I appreciate the benefits of technology, I am still scared of the transition. I did perceive a few benefits of the CAT but refrained from trying one for a long time. It was only about four years ago that I started working regularly with them and that too when one of my oldest agencies was adamant that I start using one. I started with a free tool called OmegaT. Once I started, I was hooked. Yes for me and most other translators too, I guess CATs offer benefits which are hard to ignore.

Benefits of CAT

Well, its first benefit and also its main function is to save translated segments and to prompt when there is a match. So for repetitive texts, it does save a significant amount of work.
Now that, of course, means lesser time spent on a job which means increased productivity.
The use of glossaries or term bases ensure the same meaning is offered for a particular term, thus consistency is maintained.Of course, meanings of words may change depending on situations and scenarios but the glossaries can be updated on the fly to accommodate multiple meanings of a particular term and the translator can choose the one he feels is most appropriate.
Translated segments saved from one job can be used on another. Therefore over time, we can build up translation memories and glossaries for specific subjects which maintain our consistency of word usage throughout a project.
It helps to maintain the formatting of the original text without much effort on the part of the translator; this proves particularly helpful for highly formatted source text.
For agencies and translators both, server based CATs provide the added advantage of letting multiple translators work on different areas of the same project simultaneously. This proves particularly helpful for large projects. Also, the advantage of using glossaries ensures consistency is maintained although more than one person is working on the job.
From the cost perspective, it comes as a boon to the agency or the publisher. They can decide different rates for matches and unique words in the text found by the statistical analysis done by the CAT. For translations of a technical nature, this may prove to be a considerable saving for the agency.
A note on the side, matches offered by CATs are two kinds, the simplest one is the 100% match which calls for no explanation. The other one is a fuzzy match, where it finds approximate matches between words. The percentage of approximation can be set by the CAT user. Agencies are known to set different rates for unique words, words with fuzzy matches and 100% matches.

There is no denying the fact that as more and more matches are found the quicker the translation happens, so it takes less time to finish a project than it normally would. For the translator, although his earning on one project may decrease because of this, the upside is he can finish the project quicker and move on to another one which might actually help him earn more. This is especially true if translations are more of a technical nature where terms are important and explanations and instructions are phrased and structured uniformly throughout.

However, if we are translating literature or (gulp!) poetry, we will find very little use of our CAT. There will be very little repetitions of words or phrases in literature. It is very important to stay as close as possible to the style and essence of the original text when translating literature and our CAT will offer us no help here. For most CATs the default segmentation happens at the sentence level, unless we change that to paragraphs, maintaining the style and taste of the original will be “well-nigh” impossible. However, if we do change it, we can be fairly certain of not getting matches at the paragraph level in the source text. So, here the only benefit we will get out of a CAT is the use of dictionaries or glossaries. Well, still a little help, better than none right? But is it enough to justify an investment which is more than what a freelance translator might earn in a month? That is a question we need to answer for ourselves.

My final verdict – I will use my CAT on all my translation jobs, whatever be the subject, barring literature. The benefits are too overwhelming for me to ignore. Ever since I started using them my productivity has increased, I am faster, my work has become more consistent and the overall quality of my translations has improved. I have gained all this but I actually have to work lesser hours, my CAT makes sure of that.