Adam Dales, Siemens PLM

As a technical writer, I wanted to learn from the experience of translators, who over the last several years have been adopting a new technology and tools. Since these tools are XML-based, I was curious to know what the translators discovered in the use, requirements, and potential of them. It was reasonable to expect that their experience would echo to some degree the experience of technical writers. Our own tools have become increasingly XML-based, and we are also switching to newer paradigms to create documentation. I think it is possible to see similarities, as borne out in the summary of the translators’ experience and the parallels to our profession, as set out in the Conclusions.

Translation Memory (TM) and translation management software is not new. Trados, for example, was introduced in the early 1990s.1 Translation tools are designed to provide translators with a degree of automation, efficiency, and enforced consistency as they localize text.

This survey targeted veteran translators who were already at work prior to the advent of TM and asked them to evaluate the changes in their work habits, output, and business after adopting these tools. The aim of the survey was to identify clear trends for users of TM in adaptation, professional advancement, collaboration, innovation, and the bottom line.

A point of clarification: Translation Memory is not Machine Translation2, theoretically the bane of professional translators, where inputting text in one language instantly outputs the translation in another. The rather rudimentary results so far indicate that translators equipped with TM tools will yet prevail for quite some time, though there are indications that Machine Translation is beginning to gain ground.

The professional translators and translation agency3 that responded to the survey questions are all from Israel. In the coming sections, the questions are followed by the reply trends, sometimes represented additionally in chart format. The responses are recorded in some detail to provide more exposure to the translators’ analysis of TM’s significance and its effect on their business.

Survey Questions and Responses

Question 1
How have your work methods and habits changed since using a Translation Memory tool?


Translators who have not experienced much change in their work methods explain that TM and translation management tools offer one more way of searching, but ultimately software is just an interface. The same issues arise in their day-to-day work as arose without TM.

On the other hand, some translators find that TM and terminology management tools have streamlined their work and improved their lead-time predictions, as well as increased the customers’ confidence in the end results.

Question 2
Is there a difference in dealing with your clients?


The majority believe that TM has made a difference in enabling them to calculate fuzzy word counts automatically, making it easier to set a price in advance, and reduce dealing with some time-consuming details. It also shortens the critical gap between a prospective and an actual job.

Interestingly, there are other types of changes that TM has caused, such as the need to apportion the savings from recycling older translations between the translator, the translation agency (when there is one), and the customer. Additionally, sometimes clients have an existing TM that is below standards, and yet they insist that the translator use their tool for the savings. In cases like this, decisions must be made whether “to persuade the customer to dump their TM, dump the client, or swallow one’s professional pride.”

Question 3
Has the way you handle language (your essential commercial commodity) changed?


This question elicited a range of answers. Some noted that on the one hand, translations are arguably more consistent, but the current generation of TM software does not seem to go far beyond simple matching. While good for terms, it contributes little towards style, leaving plenty of editing to do at the end.

From another perspective, it is true that using TM treats language as a commodity, but the translators believe that they produce translations as a high-quality, custom-crafted product. TM used as just another tool helps them make a better product. An important technical issue with TM tools is that they use parsing rules to split text into syntactic units. However, since not every language parses naturally in the same way, translators must split source language sentences (as when going from English into Hebrew) or merge them (as in English to Spanish). While TM has the features to accomplish these tasks, it is up to the translator to “bother to use them.”

On an even more enthusiastic note, one respondent wrote that the use of terminology and translation memory management, which were once the exclusive domain of qualified linguists, has been democratized. These tools also provide automated checking and report generation for review by project managers who can save time by pointing out only the problem areas.

Question 4
How has it affected your bottom line?


Some answers indicate that it is hard to estimate whether use of TM has enhanced business since it is only one of several tools. Another response avowed that working with a TM tool is the sine qua non in the profession, and in that sense it has affected the ability to get jobs. On the other hand, there are other variables more critically influencing the bottom line, such as language pair and direction, technical fields, prevalent salaries, and currency exchange rates in the target-language countries.

Those who replied with more surety indicated that they now receive more work, since using TM is looked upon as a measure of a vendor’s seriousness. While they admit that this view may or may not be justified, they are certain that the software has paid for itself by increasing workload capacity, due in a large part to increased efficiency.

Question 5
What guided your choice of translation software – have the criteria changed over time?

Most translators cited client needs, such as when the client specifies a file format or an application or already maintains files in specific formats. One switched first to a client’s preferred software and then to another software product of her own choosing when it became apparent that the first one was lacking in strong RTL (right-to-left) language support. Another reported that at first, an important customer said “Use this or else.” Since the tool was Trados, a market leader, he is still using it 10 years later.

A translation agency reported that the main factors continuing to guide their choice of toolset is the ability to serve multiple aims and varying file types and support of project-based concepts.

Cost may also be a factor, as one translator noted. When the client is less specific or the file formats allow for it, he prefers open source tools.

Question 6
How did you acquire knowledge and skills for using the software?


The responses ranged from self-taught through tutorials, help, online material, and user mailing lists to garnering knowledge from colleagues. Respondents report that the learning curve is steep, and practice is the best way to learn. Some turned to vendor-based training as well as knowledge sharing.

Question 7
Have you yourself actively participated in adding/improving features in the software?

Not all translators have had a hand in upgrading TM features. Some have created guidelines for TM use and created an in-house guide on setting up the TM to meet their organization’s particular needs.

A translation agency reports that they contributed to the enrichment of features for one of the industry’s premier tools for user-interface localization.

Question 8
Where do you see this technology going in the next five years?

Some of the trends noted are the parallel tracks of “do it all with me” vendors, such as Trados, that provide tool suites that are supposed to mesh effortlessly with each other, and the “best of breed” specialized, stand-alone tools for defined tasks such as terminology extraction and management, alignment, and so on.

Others detect increasing integration with Machine Translation engines as well as with open-source translation memories.

Question 9
Where would you like to see Translation Memory Tools go?

All respondents have integration in mind as they look to the future of TM. For example, they would like to have the ability to use Web services to access remote online resources and provide enhanced collaboration. Respondents desire better integration with authoring and development tools.

Others observe that Machine Translation and even voice recognition tools are inevitably moving into the translation landscape, and they would like to see an easy integration with these tools (already started with Trados and Google Translate).

Question 10
Have there been any changes in your professional self-perception due to use of translation automation?


At one end of the spectrum is the belief that using technology has elevated translators to full partners in the development effort. Others feel that it’s good to have a tool that functions as a special instrument of text search. But the translator continues to bear the authority and responsibility for the translation product, which means that an intelligent human must have the final say! Some respondents assert that one’s professionalism would remain at the same high level even if forced to work with pencil and eraser.


From this survey’s sampling of translators now using TM in their workflow, it’s possible to identify somewhat differing reactions: from “the more it changes, the more it stays the same” to a sense of breaking through to a new paradigm. It seems clear though that a steady transformation is in progress.

On the whole, adoption of TM has been an enabler, keeping translators in sync with the general technology shift around them and, in some cases, allowing them to influence the evolving methodologies and establishing the future direction of the profession.

Reflecting on the survey results, I see some similarities between the developments in the translation profession and our experience as technical communicators. We’re also progressing to XML-based methods, concepts, and tools. Like some translators, some of us have a sense that language is our craft and that the current XML-based tools are just that—tools. Then again, like the translators, we’re finding it necessary to submit to a regimen, in our case: information-typing, reduced involvement in formatting, writing less and more simple English, and pursuing minimalism. Reminiscent of the reuse of translated phrases held in Translation Memory, technical writers are single-sourcing for a ‘write once, re-use in many places’ efficiency.

The challenge for all of us is how much we will resist or embrace the incoming wave of innovation and be ready to deal with the sometimes disruptive advances facing us professionally.

1. Some well-known commercial TM tools: Trados, Fusion, WordFast, Multicorpora
2. For example, Google Translate or Microsoft Word Translate
3. Uri Bruck, Aviah Morag (TransLink), Ury Vainsencher, NET Translators