A (Very) Short Introduction to CAT Tools

A (Very) Short Introduction to CAT Tools

Computer-Assisted Translation Tools, or CAT Tools, are specialized computer programs that, as the name implies, aid the translator during translation activities. Nowadays, they’re available in suites rather than separate programs that communicate with each other, so you could think of them as a kind of integrated translation environment.

A CAT Tool’s first and foremost function is the successful extraction of all translatable content from a source file. A source file could be anything from a Word document, an Excel Spreadsheet, a PowerPoint presentation, an InDesign file, an HTML file, or any other supported file format. The extracted material is then available through the CAT Tool’s Editor pane, in tabular layout that’s easy on the eyes and allows for quicker translation processing. Another benefit of the tabular layout a CAT Tool offers is that it allows you to focus on the translatable content; this means you’re free of distractions such as images, funny font colors/sizes, or weird backgrounds which you’d regular deal with when translating directly in source files (for example, when dealing with a PowerPoint file). As an added bonus, you can translate any supported source file even if you don’t have the original software that produced it. CAT Tools contain internal parsers that handle these source files and, once translated, can export everything back to that same format.

The next significant feature we have is the retention and reuse of translations. By using a component called Translation Memories (TMs), all translations are saved in a database for future reference and recall. You can think of this process as a kind of translation recycling. What this practically means is that the next time you translate a similar document, the CAT Tool will automatically detect and insert into your work any identical translations it finds in the database (aka 100% Matches or Context Matches). Moreover, it will also suggest possible translations on near-identical text parts (aka Fuzzy Matches), so you can then simply adjust the similar translation to the exact context of the new one. This is a vital tool in your hands, as it can immensely speed up your work and keep it consistent.

Along with Translation Memories, another nifty feature (and the darling of technical translation projects) is terminology management and consistency. This is offered through another component called Terminology Databases (aka TermBases). The functionality is quite similar to Translation Memories, with the main difference being that TermBases accumulate specific, predefined keywords/phrases (aka terms); frequently, these terms go hand in hand with their description (aka definition). In conjunction with a Translation Memory, the moment you enter a text part (aka segment) in your CAT Tool’s Editor that contains a TermBase match, you’ll see that term highlighted (both in the segment and the TM pane) and the predefined translation (and/or definition) of it displayed to you. This gives you a clear indication of what part is an actual term and how to correctly translate it.

It’s worth mentioning here that CAT Tools also provide you with something called Verification Checks. Unfortunately, a lot of translators underestimate the power and usefulness of this feature. But, in many cases it can prove a life-saver. What these checks do is make sure your translation (completed or in progress) complies with your project’s settings. For example, your work can be checked for: untranslated parts, errors within translated parts, character length limits (if enabled by the client or you), inconsistent translations, spelling/grammar errors, and so on. The majority of clients request you run a Verification Check before delivering your work. And, to be honest, you should do it even when not requested. The process will surely catch problems you never knew were there and save you from some possible embarrassing moments with the client.

For those of you not familiar at all with CAT Tools, allow me to show you a screen mockup that clearly shows how all the above components blend together:

CAT Tool Screen Mockup

The above user interface mockup is a quite common layout used by nearly all major CAT Tools. You can see now why I called it an Integrated Translation Environment. In a single screen, you have access to all four major CAT Tool components:

  • Project/File Pane: For handling project/file details
  • Translation Memory: For reusing previous translations
  • TermBase: For terminology reuse and consistency
  • Editor: For translating

Now let’s see what an actual CAT Tool screen looks like:

SDL Trados Screen

The above screenshot is from SDL Trados Studio 2014, one of the popular proprietary CAT Tools in the translation industry. As you can see, despite the seemingly more complex appearance, the main layout and design follows the simplified mockup we saw further above.


The above post is a modified excerpt from my book Translation 101: Starting Out As A Translator available at all major online publishers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes iBook store, Kobo, SmashWords, Lulu). A Special Edition of the eBook version (with useful translation tools included) can be found at http://www.translation101.net.

Petro Dudi avatar
About Petro Dudi
Petro Dudi is an American expat residing the last two decades in Athens, Greece. His professional career revolves around the Translation & Localization Industry for more than 17 years, having translated or project managed numerous projects for tech giants such as Microsoft, IBM/Lotus, Adobe, Symantec, GE Energy, Caterpillar, Toshiba, LaCie, Canon, Sony, Nokia, Bosch, Siemens etc. Petro is also the author of "Translation 101: Starting Out As A Translator", and the creator of the "Translation101 Toolkit" software.
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