A translation memory is the single most important and useful translation tool in the professional translation agency’s computer-aided-translation (CAT) toolbox. If your organization reuses blocks of content for translated documents, manuals, marketing materials, surveys, e-learning, or websites, a TM can save you a substantial amount of money.

How do translation memories work?

When a translator is using a CAT tool for a translation project, the tool filters out the formatting and presents segments of translatable text in a two-column interface. The “source” segments — sentences, clauses, headings, list elements, captions, etc.– appear in the first column. Translators input the “target” translations in the second column as they work.

chart showing projected savings from TM over a 3-year period

A translation memory is the database that stores matched source/target segments. If the same segment appears several times in the same source document, after the translator’s first encounter with the segment the TM will auto-populate the translated target segment throughout the rest of the document. Similarly, if the proofreader makes a change to a target segment that appears multiple times, all changes will be auto-populated as well.

If content is replicated or updated, the TM facilitates the task. Once the new source text is loaded into the CAT tool, the TM compares each segment of the new source document to the contents of 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 target segment is flagged for review. Once the new document has been run through the translation memory, the translator reviews, edits, and confirms the matches in context, and translates any new or changed source segments. Over time, as more segments are added to the database, repetition tends to be larger and cost savings correspondingly greater.

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Clients should be aware that there are charges for text retrieved from a translation memory even when there is a 100% match. All matches should be proofread to make sure that the translation is still appropriate in the new context. In addition, as with any database, it takes time and effort to maintain a TM. But, the cost per word for repetitions is usually a fraction of the normal charge. If you plan to make changes in only one section of a lengthy text that has already been translated, it may not be economical to rely on a translation memory. You can send the translation agency only 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. Some CMSs are more translation-friendly than others, and the same applies to e-learning authoring and technical writing tools. These can help increase speed and reduce costs by making it easier to export source content to be translated and to re-import (translated) target content into the foreign-language versions.

Translation memories and terminology management

Another feature of many translation memory systems helps translators maintain consistency in their word choice throughout and across documents, 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. 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 verified translations are auto-suggested for 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 complete projects faster with radically reduced error rates. This does not mean that translation providers that use TMs will give you the absolute 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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