Why should translators combine skills and technology?

For years now, translators have been worried that they may soon be replaced by computers. Personally, I hardly believe it will happen in our lifetime―or in my kids' lifetime―but that doesn't mean that translators should shun away from technology altogether. Once you see technology as your ally, you'll notice how much easier your job gets. By combining technology and your sharp translation skills, you can become the most efficient translator you could ever be!

For example, I've been using the same computer-assisted translation (CAT) tool since 2008. It's called Swordfish and the reason I migrated to it after using another tool for about four years was the fact that it's a cross platform solution. What does that mean, exactly? Well, it means that regardless of the operating system you use (Windows, Mac OS, or Linux) you can run this tool without the need for any “magic” (i.e. emulators to “trick” your computer into thinking it's something that it is not, just because some software may have been designed with a certain operating system in mind.) We use Linux in our offices by the way, or the Ubuntu distribution to be more precise, and Swordfish has eliminated our need to have a Windows computer, making our company's operations more reliable, virus-free, and with minimal bugs and downtime.

By using the same CAT tool consistently, I'm able to keep my translation memories (TMs) organized. These TMs are databases where you record your work, so you can use it later on―days, weeks, or years down the road―without the need to remember how you've done it before or go through old files to locate that same sentence you feel like you've translated in the past.

I decided to create different TMs, one for each client, in order to keep things separate. Should one of these clients ever request a copy of their dedicated TM, I could send it to them without breaching the non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) we've signed. In other words, I could send Client A a TM containing past translations completed for them without disclosing any confidential information about Client B, because the latter's content won't be mixed up in the same TM.


Actually, let me take a step back to talk about how TMs work. First of all, it's important to say that no, CAT tools don't do the work for you. All a CAT does is separate a file into segments, which can be sentences, titles, headlines, photo captions, or any other complete line of text and have it ready for you to translate it. You basically see the original segment on the left (or on the top, depending on your settings) and then have a blank field on the right (or the bottom) where you'll type the respective translation. Once you're happy with this source + target combination, you save the translation unit (TU) to your TM.

If you work for the same client very often, or translate the same subject time and time again, you can “leverage” your past translations when working on new material. Think about legal translators who work with contracts that have very similar clauses, dispositions and wording. Once they translate a sentence and record it to the TM, they can use that same translation―with some adaptation, when needed―whenever a similar new sentence comes up.


The best part of it is that good CAT tools actually highlight or somehow indicate exactly what needs to be changed while comparing the current segment to your legacy material. Then, all you have to do is use your past translation and change a couple of words to make sure your current translation is faithful to the source text.

When this wonderful thing happens, you have what we call a “match.” Using some complicated computer equations that we don't need to dwell on, these matches can be classified as having a 50-99% similarity between the source and target sentences. When you get a 100% match―jackpot!―that means the sentence you are about to translate is IDENTICAL to a sentence you've translated in the past, and the CAT found it for you.

Just to make it clear, that can only happen if you have been consistently working with the CAT and feeding your TM with your work. As I mentioned before, CATs won't do the work for you, but they'll remind you how you translated something in the past.

CATs will also identify what we call “repetitions,” which are similar to 100% or exact matches. The only difference between them is that repetitions only exist inside the document you're translating. In other words, they don't refer to a TU that has been previously recorded to a TM; they refer to a segment that repeats itself several times throughout your current project.


Everything I've talked about so far refers to the translation of the source text itself. TMs will recall TUs based on the sentences you've translated in the past, but they'll only be able to provide recommendations at the word level if you create a glossary, or terminology database (TB), and feed it as well. In my particular case, I have a single multilingual glossary to which I can add terminology in all my work languages (English, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian) and it allows me to cross-reference them in a central location.

Different CATs work differently, but what I do on Swordfish is pretty much highlight the source term, then highlight its counterpart in the target segment, and use a hotkey to record it to my TB. That way, I don't have to research the same terminology several times. When that same term shows up on a different segment, the CAT will display your glossary entry and―if it matches the context―you can use it again.

I don't know about you, but if I translate something during my first shift (let's say, between 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.) then I get up, get lunch ready while watching some T.V., talk to my husband or discipline the kids... Well, my point is, when I go back to my second shift (between 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.) I'll most likely have forgotten how I translated a particular term. And, because some expressions can be translated differently―very few translations are absolute!―keeping an updated glossary, sometimes with several options for the same term, saves me a considerable amount of time when it comes to remembering how I've translated it a few hours, weeks, or days ago.


So that these concepts won't be too abstract for people who have never used a CAT before, here's a more practical example. Because I've been using Swordfish for 90% of my translations since 2008, keeping a very organized TM and recording every single sentence I type in the target language, as well as updating my TB with key terminology after proper research and context verification, my CAT helps me reuse my translations whenever needed.

The other day, I was able to complete 9,652 words on an English-to-Portuguese technical manual in only three hours of work―all before lunch time! And how did that happen? Swordfish identified several repetitions inside the same manual, as well as some matches to what I had previously translated in other manuals for the same client.

Besides translating everything that was considered “new” material―segments that I had never translated in the past―my job in this particular translation was to make sure that matches were aligned with what I had translated in the past, given the changes needed, and all repetitions were uniform across the document.

In a different scenario, had I not been using a CAT, I'd have to go back and forth through the pages of this document, and possibly have opened several other documents I previously completed for this client, so that I could cross reference everything and make sure my translation was consistent throughout the document and the length of my collaboration with this client so far. That would have taken me hours (maybe a couple extra days!) were I following a purely manual system.


The takeaway message here is: Having sharp translation skills is a given for anyone who intends to become a professional translator. But, if you want to become efficient, effective and accurate, having the ability to improve your average output (how many words you translate per hour, day, week, or month) you must take advantage of the resources that technology makes available to you.

If you're interested in learning more about Swordfish,
check out my class at the University of California San Diego Extension

RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of "Tools and Technology in Translation ― The Profile of Beginning Language Professionals in the Digital Age," which is based on her UCSD Extension class. Rafa has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, a collective blog about translation and literature, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS), a project to promote Brazilian literature worldwide.*

Jost Zetzsche: "We Are Doing A Great Job In Telling Poor Stories About Ourselves As Translators"

ata chicago teresa kelly.jpg

During the 55th Annual Conference organized November 5-8, 2014 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Chicago, I attended a session entitled Why We Need to be Good Storytellers, presented by Jost Zetzsche, tech-savvy English-to-German translator, editor of The Toolbox Journal, and co-author of Found in Translation (read review here).

Jost started out by highlighting the power of translators and translations in worldwide communications, mentioning two fascinating examples:

  • the Inuit people needed to create a word for Internet, considering their lack of technology use, and came up with ikiaqqivik, which means “traveling through layers”
  • the Chinese had to create a special character for “God” that would be a gender-neutral and match their all-encompassing philosophical interpretations

The speaker then moved on to point the finger at the translation community: “We are doing a great job in telling poor stories about ourselves as translators,” he pondered. “Disagreements are fine, and there are great reasons to have disagreements, but we don't do it in public. We're not helping each other when being so critical.”

He was referring to discussion forums and social media posts in general, in which translators seem to be always complaining and being negative about everything related to our industry―from prices to competition and especially technology.

Jost then highlighted a couple of headlines that support his idea that we must tell better stories about ourselves as professionals, and as the translation community as a whole. “Success demands that we harness the power of telling a killer story,” he read from Psychology Today. “Telling stories is the best way to teach, persuade, and even understand ourselves,” he read another headline.

"We need to present ourselves well and be aware of who we are. 
We identify ourselves with St. Jerome, who wasn't really
tech-savvy when he translated the Bible."

For more positive stories about translation, check out "  Found in Translation  ," Jost co-wrote with interpreter Nataly Kelly

For more positive stories about translation, check out "Found in Translation," Jost co-wrote with interpreter Nataly Kelly

He moved on to talk about how the media is covering stories related to translation. For example, he mentioned the first Skype translator demo and emphasized that it was kind of a fiasco. “But the press loved it, so the story was positive,” he stated. “The press was really interested in translation; maybe not just the type of translation that we want to talk about.” As a contrast, he indicated that for 350+ articles found online about the Skype translator demo, there were only 13 articles on the International Translation Day. “The latter is not an attractive story,” he concluded.

We are right now in the process of a supernova”

The speaker reminded those who attended his session how there wasn't much of a translation industry before the 1980s. Back then, there were mostly individuals offering their services, but then translation technology came along and things really changed.

Here's the time line Jost presented to the audience:

  • 1980s ― Translations (Documents, paper) > 10 languages
  • 1990s ― Localization (Software, digital) > 25 languages
  • 2000s ― Globalization (Simship, static web) > 40 languages
  • 2010s ― Integration (Integration in enterprise systems, dynamic web) 6 < > 60 languages
  • 2020s ― Convergence (Embedded in every app, on every screen, personalized) 150 < > 150 languages

“We, individual translators or small business owners, can't offer what large corporations have to offer, because we're using different technology,” he explained. “But the demand for boutique-style specialist translation businesses could grow. We're no longer an industry; we're a supernova!”

Where do we tell stories?

In the last part of his session, Jost listed a few ways translators can tell better stories about themselves and our collective activities.

  • Professional websites and blogs
  • Social media posts: “You can create a good on-line persona with 100 tweets; but it only takes 1 tweet to kill that persona!”
  • Other forms of electronic outreach: podcasts, YouTube channels, Tumbler, Pinterest, Instagram, etc.
  • Industry-specific engagements: conferences such as the ATA's
  • Not-for-profit engagements: Translators Without Borders's take on how translators have helped spread news about ebola
  • Talks: sharing your knowledge with peers or educating potential clients
  • Publications articles, books, etc.
  • Any kind of communication with potential clients

Jost's Recommended reading on positive stories that shed a light on the translation industry:

Rafa Pink.jpg

RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of "Tools and Technology in Translation ― The Profile of Beginning Language Professionals in the Digital Age," which is based on her UCSD Extension class. Rafa has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. She also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators.