4 April 2013

Tools of a translator's trade

The first thing you will find you need to become a real translator is a computer...  but not just any will do the trick. You will need a reasonably good computer with a decent Internet connection - on both counts, not necessarily fast but definitely stable.

You will also need a copy of Microsoft Office. The real thing. This sounds quite straightforward, but I only learnt it the hard way myself. I had been using Open Office for everything for many years without a problem, and I thought I could continue that way as a translator.

For a while it even looked like I could indeed, since I could open documents just fine, work on them and deliver them to my client agencies. But then the odd thing would go wrong and I would need to put in lots of unexpected time to deal with annoying formatting issues. On a couple of occasions clients even sent the file back because what left my computer looking exactly like the original looked different when they opened it. I eventually realized that there were some incompatibilities, and Microsoft Office fixed them for me.

Less obscurely, you will soon come across the potential need for CAT (computer-assisted translation) tools. One of the main problems with that abstract need is that there are a zillion CAT programmes - which one should you choose? Many are expensive and complicated to use, and one may assume that a good translator can do the job the old-fashioned way in any case. In fact, many veteran translators do not use these programmes at all, but owning one of them is essential if you are starting out in the business right now.

Here is a good recent thread on CAT tools, http://www.linkedin.com/groups/How-useful-are-CAT-tools-138763.S.223599409?qid=3b18e974-a3df-4d00-befd-d63dcc018f4b&trk=group_most_popular-0-b-ttl&goback=%2Egmp_138763. This touches on just about any doubts or questions you may have on the issue.

For what it is worth, here are my own two cents.

I chose to buy a CAT tool because I realized that I would otherwise be missing out on many potential jobs - around 20 per cent of those published on ProZ, according to my own rough estimate. Many agencies will require you to use a CAT tool, and most will even tell you which one they want you to use.

Since that was my primary motivation, I opted for the particular programme that appeared to be most demanded by outsourcers, which was SDL Trados.

So... I bought Trados Studio, took a webinar on how to use it and tested it on a couple of documents that did not require the programme. When I got going, the CAT tool did indeed allow me to bid for more jobs, which was good.

But it also brought me a few advantages I had not really taken into consideration in advance. I no longer had to bother much with formatting, which was fantastic news. The documents are comfortably set side by side for me to translate, my translations become more consistent, and I work a lot faster, particularly on technical texts.

Perhaps the most important thing for an aspiring translator, however, is that CAT programmes make you look professional: you say you are a translator, and owning the tools of the trade lends weight to that claim.

I chose Trados Studio for the reasons I mentioned earlier, but I get the impression that those who work in agencies and therefore get to choose what CAT tool they use tend to prefer Wordfast or MemoQ. I did not really feel that I was in a position to opt for those when I was starting out, but when I have more money and more direct clients I will probably give them a try.

The down side to using these programmes is that agencies usually want discounts on exact and partial word matches, so using a CAT tool is in fact most profitable when you are dealing with a client who did not ask for it in the first place.


  1. Thank you for this post. As a new translator I've been wondering what the added value of a CAT Tool might be... answered!

    1. Thank you Natasha! I am very glad you found this helpful. There is so much info out there that it can be a bit overwhelming, and it is probably good to read the train of thought of someone who has actually been there before you.