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Translation Management Software and Translators' Credentials

Originally published in Society for Technical Communications' NY Metro Chapter News, Vol. 3, No. 3

George Rimalower describes the translation cycle in Tips for Writing a Document Destined for Translation in the April 2009 issue of Intercom, stating that a document is first translated, then edited, and then run through translation management software. In my experience as a translator, many translators -- me included -- use translation management software (TM) during the initial translation. Such software use early in the cycle not only helps translators work more efficiently, but also ensures a more consistent translation. However, the potential of TM software can be fully leveraged only if the original (source) text's terminology and structure are consistent, as well.

As Mr. Rimalower explains, translation management software matches text fragments (sentences, strings or entire paragraphs) with previously translated text. Unlike the search functionality in standard word processing programs, however, TM software allows for small variations in the text (different word endings, one or two different words in a sentence, etc.) Consider this example:

  • Sentence 1: "The dog in the house is brown and small."
  • Sentence 2a: "The cat in the house is brown and small."
  • Sentence 2b: "There is a small, brown cat in the house."

TM software will record sentence 1. If it later encounters sentence 2a, it will present sentence 1 as a "fuzzy" (inexact) match. The translator then has to change only "dog" to "cat" and can skip the rest of the sentence. But if sentence 2b is used instead, the software will not know that the two sentences are similar and will therefore not present the first sentence as a possible option. The translator must translate again the entire sentence.

This is particularly important if various documents relating to the same product are translated at different points in time. If sentence 1 occurs in document 1, and sentence 2a or 2b occurs in document 2, the translator may not remember sentence 1 when translating sentence 2 weeks after working on document 1. While TM software permits the creation of custom glossaries, these usually contain only key terms, not variations on minor word choices. While the translator may not remember sentence 1, the software will remember it if sentence 2a is used, no matter how long ago document 1 was translated. The translator can ensure a consistent translation for sentence 2.

Such use of TM software only works, however, if the translation memory from document 1 is used when document 2 is translated. If the same person translates both documents, he or she may reuse the translation memory. If a different person handles document 2, he or she may not have access to the translation memory used for document 1 -- indeed, the translator may not even know it exists. This requires the same translator to be available for both documents. The best way to ensure that is to let your translator know that document 2 will exist and when to expect the source text. The translator then can schedule other projects accordingly and ensure they are available to work on document 2.

Mr. Rimalower also states that translators' qualifications are demonstrated by a degree in translation, "preferably at the master's level." However, depending on the language combination in question, such a degree may not be readily obtainable in the U.S., especially for immigrants who arrive here as adults. For example, none of the many universities in New York City offers an M.A. in German-English translation. New York University offers a certificate in translation for this language combination, which is not even equivalent to a B.A., let alone a more advanced degree. And German is one of the more common languages in American academia.

Translation is a practical skill, not just an academic discipline. While the academic study of translation can be useful, it is not a prerequisite for successfully practicing the profession. As a matter of fact, a number of professionals in the field, including trainer Jon Ritzdorf, state that proven subject matter expertise is more important than a translation degree in the U.S. A bi-lingual computer programmer, for example, will be more familiar with computer terminology and concepts in both languages than someone with a translation degree in these languages and a background in sociology.

To ensure an effective, consistent translation of your source documents, therefore, ensure consistency in both translators and source text, and choose translators with experience in your field (e.g., computer software), regardless of whether they have an M.A. in translation.

Barbara Jungwirth (office@reliabletranslations.com) has for the past 9 years been a German-English translator specializing in computer documentation and other technical texts. She is the founder and president of reliable translations llc (www.reliabletranslations.com), which provides German-English technical translations.