What Translation Tools Can and Can’t Do: The Art of Translation

Translation Tools

Globalization and the increased interconnectedness of the world in the 21st century have placed new demands on translators in the form of increasing volumes of work. Translation firms have responded by requiring translators to become proficient at cutting-edge translation software. Applying these tools increases productivity and aids quick turn-around times.  As such, translation tools have become indispensable to increase output and market competitiveness, but do they guarantee high quality translation?

 CAT Tools Make Life Easier

A suite of programs known as Computer Aided Translation tools (CAT tools), assist translators to more efficiently complete translation tasks. CAT tools split the source text into segments and save them, along with their translation, into a translation memory (TM). A TM is a database of saved translations of segments from which the translator can then draw.

CAT tools make life easier for translators. They can take the original text, divide it into sections and render it in an easy-to-translate and bilingual format for the translator. If some segments are repeated in a text, CAT tools can automatically insert the first translation into these repeated segments, alleviating the translator from the burden of tedious copy and pasting.

Translators no longer need to remember vast amounts of terminology. Through CAT tools, translators have access to a vast range of terminology databases, dictionaries and specialist encyclopedias to aid the accuracy, a feature unthinkable a few decades ago. For large projects, CAT tools can ensure consistency when working across a number of translations and a number of translators are working on the same documents.

Quality Translation: Where CAT Tools Fall Short

Most translators will agree that these tools are very useful, but can CAT tools really guarantee the seamless replication of feeling, purpose and accuracy into another language, i.e. quality?

For a final translation to be of high quality an expert translator must edit the CAT tool’s suggestion, a subject matter expert must review the content, and it needs to be crosschecked.

More importantly, the accuracy of a translation is a result of more than simply translating words from one language to another.  It implies looking at all the extra-linguistic features such as context, target audience, tone of voice and register. For example, when translating from English into Japanese, one needs to take into account the importance of all honorific suffixes and the existence of three different registers in Japanese. Idioms and figures of speech usually need to be reconstructed in the new language, because a direct translation will not mean the same thing. Translating the French idiom “j’ai un chat dans la gorge” into “having a cat in one’s throat” would not make sense to an English speaker, who would instead use “having a frog in one’s throat” to mean the same thing. Also, the brilliant alliterations in Lord Byron’s poem She Walks in Beauty (i.e. cloudless climes and starry skies) are much harder to replicate in Italian (di climi tersi e di cieli stellati).

Bridging the Gap between Two Cultures

Translating implies bridging a gap between not only two languages but also two cultures, and cultures have different ways of expressing the same concepts. For example, some cultures deliver messages in a straightforward, direct way, while others prefer a more indirect and ambiguous way to express the same message. In some cultures there are deeper meanings embedded in the subtext based on the situation and the relationship between the speakers. In this case, a simple word-for-word translation fails to convey the deeper meaning of the text.

A truly high quality translation produces a text in the target language that reads as if it were originally written in the target language, and it could be a long time before CAT tools can be this sophisticated. CAT tool translations can come close to human translation in basic, repetitive texts; however, CAT tools alone cannot guarantee high quality translation. They still require the ingenuity of a qualified and experienced translator who is skilled at cultural nuances and proficient in the two cultures as well as the two languages.


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