Computer-based Assistance for the Translator: Translation Memory

Marcos Chiquetto mar 28 2023

Until the decade of the 1980s, professional writers (writers, journalists, translators, technical writers, etc.) wrote on typewriters, or even with a pen. If they wanted to use something that they had already written, there was only one way to do it: cut the passage out with a scissors and paste it on the sheet of paper with the new text.

This was not very easy. A lot of the time it was easier to just write everything over again than it was to try to graft snippets for reuse.

But from the 80s on, the activity of writing moved from paper to the computer. Nowadays, no one even knows how to use a typewriter and there are people who find it much difficult to write with a pen. One of the most important changes that this technology has brought about is the possibility of easily reusing previously written material: just copy whatever you want and paste it electronically in the text you are writing.

If you look at two manuals for similar products from the same company, you will see a lot of text that has been repeated, because the writer reused parts of one manual when writing the other. This is even more apparent when looking at successive versions of the same product. For example, if you look carefully at the manual of a recently released cellular phone, you will probably be able to spot passages from the manual of the previous version.

The reutilization of text allows for great savings when translating documents, because parts of translations that have already been done can be reused in new translations. In order to facilitate this reutilization of text, software tools began to be developed in the 1990s that provide translation memory systems, which segment translations by sentences (or according to other configurable criteria) as they are typed and stores them in a database. For each new text to be translated, the system analyzes the work first, comparing all of the segments of new text with the segments that are already stored in the database. The result of this initial analysis will indicate the volume of text that will actually require translation, and the sentences that have been translated previously will be automatically imported from the database and put in the place of the corresponding phrases in the original text.

The verb “leverage” has been established in the translation business with the meaning of reusing previous translated material in new translation jobs by means of a translation memory system. Leveraging of previous translation allows to a dramatic reduction in translation costs and turnaround times.

For example, a translation agency receives a new version of a website from a client for translation. Earlier versions of the site have already been translated by this same agency, so it has the previous translations in its translation memory database. The total volume of the website is 45,000 words. If the agency does not work with translation memory, this is the volume that will be used to charge the client. But the analysis indicates that 78% of the text is already in the translation memory. This means that only 22% of the total volume needs to be translated, which adds up to 9900 words. As a result, the client is spared the cost of translating 35,100 words. Moreover, the turnaround time for the job will be reduced to a few days.

A translation memory system also improves the consistency of terminology and style across different translated documents, once the new translations will actually contain the previously translated material. Moreover, the translator has tools to search the memory for terminology, so even if the new sentence is not available in the translation memory, its words can be translated in the same way they were translated in previous jobs.

Translation memory was a radical revolution in the translation business. It is just inconceivable to be in this business today without this kind of tool. Fortunately, the revolution was for good.

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