CAT Tools Crash Course – Part 1: What is a CAT tool and how it can be useful to you

Before I explain the basic idea behind all CAT tools, let me consider the naive approach to translating documents.

The naive translator

You could, of course, open your source document in your source language on one side of your screen, then open a blank document on the other side. And you could start translating right away, reading the source on the left, writing your translations on the right.

But soon, you discover a few problems with this…

1) It is exhausting. You are switching between your source and target document, steadily looking with your eyes where you left the source before you went to the target to write your translations. This is also very much prone to leaving parts of the text untranslated because you simply lose yourself in the text.

2) You need to graphically format the target to make it look more or less similar to the source. While this might not be too much of an issue with simply formatted documents, it can soon turn into a nightmare when you translate a document full of images, tables, and difficult text formatting.

3) You find yourself translating identical or similar texts all over again and again. So when you translate the “Keep this manual for future reference.” phrase for a gazillion time already, you start asking yourself if this could perhaps be optimized in some way.

4) It’s exhausting too keep consistence in terminology. There might be so many terms in your document that you soon lose track of how you have actually translated that “safety interlock” on page 45 or “brake pads” on page 67.

The professional translator

And this is where the CAT tools come into the game. They can take care of all the problems mentioned above and they can even provide some more benefits on top of that.

The fundamental ideas behind CAT tools

A CAT tool is basically a simple database combined with a simple text editor. Consider the image below.

So what you can actually do with a CAT tool is to take your source document, upload it to your CAT, convert it to a translatable format… and simply start translating.

The advantages of a CAT tool

Convenient arrangement of text

You will immediately recognize this very useful feature: Your text is nicely separated into individual segments (they look like cells and usually contain 1 whole sentence each… but it can also be just a meaningful block of text, not a sentence per se).

You can see that your source is on the left and you will write your translations on the right. This is the vertical arrangement. It’s perhaps the most common one, but some tools (e.g. Transit NXT) can also be arranged horizontally.

Notice that your active segment, i.e. the segment you are currently translating, is highlighted by color.

This is of a great advantage, as you don’t have to look with your eyes where you left your source text – it’s immediately apparent.

Translation Memories – they remember everything you have ever translated!

And now comes an even greater advantage…. the database feature!

Remember that “Keep this manual for future reference.” sentence you have already translated a thousand times before, from the introduction of this text?

Now get this: a CAT tool will store this sentence along with your translation into its database! In fact, it will store ALL the sentences you translate over your whole professional life! And you know what’s even better? Yes, you’ve guessed it right! It will remember them and offer you those stored translations from its database every time an identical or similar sentence comes up in your text you are currently working on.

This means you translate the “Keep this manual for future reference.” sentence just ONCE and FOR ALL. You will never have to translate it again, the software will insert the translation for you every time such sentence appears in your text again. Pretty cool, huh?

Such database of translations is often referred to as a “translation memory” or TM. You might also hear the term TMX (Translation Memory eXchange) – this is a translation memory XML export file that you can conveniently import into your own translation memory. This means you can take advantage of other people’s translation memories too.

Text formatting, tables and images

This is yet another great feature of all CAT tools: you don’t need to worry about text formatting, tables or even images! CAT will take care of it for you. You just concentrate on translating the text, and the CAT will format it into different fonts, neat tables, and will even place all the images into their appropriate locations. So when you finalize your document, i.e. export it into its original format, it will look nearly identical to the source, except it will be in a different language.


What was that term I used to translate the “heat pipe” with? And what did I use for “safety interlock”? Damn! I can’t remember anymore… will have to go back in the text and look it up in what I have already translated. I am losing so much time!

Well, not anymore. Not with CAT tools. CAT tools can do this for you. You can just define a list of terms you would like to use during the translation process and your CAT tool (I mean a good tool) will offer a corresponding translation every time such term appears in your source text. Most tools will even highlight such term in the text! And you know what the best part is? You can even add such terms dynamically as you progress through you text. Your text just crawls with “safety joints” and “safety latches”? Just add them to your term list so that you can always translate them in the same way and so keep the consistency of your translations.

The lifecycle of a translated document

To finalize this very first part of this mini-series, let me explain how a source document (e.g. in MS Word) can be loaded into a CAT tool and then returned to its original form, except in another language.

1) You start by creating a project in your CAT tool and loading all your documents you would like to translate into it. You can also attach translation memory and a terminology list.

2) You translate your document

3) Once you are finished translating your document, you export it back to its original format by clicking the Export/Finalize option. And that’s it, that’s the lifecycle of a translated document.

The final file exported from SDL Trados Studio – it looks almost identical to the source, except it’s in a different language (Czech)

Please watch this video summarizing this text:

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