translation memory is the single most important and useful translation tool in the professional translation agency’s computer-aided-technology (CAT) toolbox. If your company reuses blocks of content over and over again in different manuals, marketing materials, websites—and those materials are also translated into the same languages—it’s a tool that can save you a substantial amount of money.

Translation memories save money and ensure consistency

chart showing projected savings from TM over a 3-year periodA translation memory is a database that stores segments (sentences, headings, list elements, etc.) and their corresponding translations as the document is translated. It correlates the source segments in the original language with the target segments in the translation so that an existing translation can simply be recovered from the database and only new material needs to be translated.

For example, let’s consider the worst possible scenario: The source document needs to be changed while the translation is in progress. Without a translation memory, the translator either has to spend time locating each change in the original document and then finding and changing the corresponding segment in the translated document—or simply start over—in either case, it is a time-consuming and expensive process.

But, if the translation has been started using a translation memory, that tool can do the work of locating the changes. The translation memory tool will look at each segment of the new source document and compare it to what is already in the translation memory. If there is an exact match, the previous translation is automatically used. If a segment is almost the same as the original (a “fuzzy match”), the translation is reused with a note generated to the translator to check and edit it. Once the new document has been run through the translation memory, the translator just has to scan for untranslated content and fuzzy matches. The translation work that was already done does not have to be repeated.

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The same process is used with new documents that may contain text matching what was in earlier documents. The process not only saves time and money, but equally importantly, it ensures that the same text is translated consistently every time. Over time, as more segments are added to the database, repetition tends to be larger and cost savings correspondingly greater.

Translation memory matches are not cost-free

Clients should be aware that there are charges for text retrieved from a translation memory even when there is a 100% match with content found in the memory. Translation memories require careful maintenance and updating to be most useful. Also, even matching material should be proofread to make sure that the translation is still appropriate in the new context. These costs have to be covered. But, the cost per word for repetitions is usually a fraction of the normal charge.

If you make on-going changes to parts of lengthy documents that have already been translated, it may not be economical to rely on a translation memory. If it does not take more time on your end, you can send the translation agency only the parts of the document that have changes or highlight in some way the portions that have been revised.

Clients with large volumes of translation should also look into content management and authoring systems whose workflows support translation. They can help increase speed and reduce costs even further by focusing only on content that has changed and by making it easier to export text to be translated and to re-import translation changes into the foreign-language versions.

Translation memories and terminology management

Another feature of many translation memory systems is a terminology manager. This feature helps translators to be consistent in their word choice throughout and across documents. Using terms consistently within a given project is critical to achieving a high quality translation. Instead of relying on notes or their own memories while translating, the translator can use terminology management software to create glossaries and be reminded of the approved translation for a given term. Each word with a unique meaning and usage in a particular context can be placed in the glossary. The glossary can be assigned to a subject matter, a project or a client so that the translator will remember the proper translation for words within a given context. Glossaries are especially useful when working on large and highly technical or specialized projects that require more than one translator to work in parallel.

Together, translation memories and terminology management tools allow translators to be much more productive—saving clients money, completing projects faster, and radically reducing error rates. This does not mean that translation providers that use TMs will give you the cheapest rates. Translators who do not invest in such tools may offer cheaper per word rates on your initial translation, but over time your losses in re-translation costs, delays and quality problems may dwarf those savings quickly.

If you don’t already know, ask your translation partner about their CAT tools and make sure that they are using and maintaining a translation memory for your translation projects.

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