For non-translators who might be reading my blog and who don’t know what a CAT tool is, CAT stands for Computer-Assisted (or Aided) Translation, and CAT tools are software products designed to increase translators’ productivity by remembering and saving frequently used words so they can be reused again. CAT tools also identify identical passages in documents to prevent needless retranslations.
I myself first discovered translation software about ten years ago when a translation agency I had been working for about eight years or so sent me a new agreement, often referred to as an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement), that specified the payment reduction percentages for what the agreement called “full matches” and “fuzzy matches”.
So I called the agency and asked the nice lady who was co-owner of the agency and whom I knew from many past assignments, including translations of humongous Japanese patents and long descriptions of medical tests and procedures for manufacturing pharmaceutical products, “What is this thing called “Trados” and what do you mean by “full matches” and “fuzzy matches”? And she explained that Trados was a memory tool and that if I did not have it, it was fine and I did not have to worry about it as long as I delivered the current translation on time.
But she recommended downloading something called Wordfast, because she said that it worked just like Trados and that it was free, unlike Trados, which costs an arm and a leg.
I finished and delivered the translation and then downloaded Wordfast, either the next day or several days later.
But since I don’t like to learn new software and Wordfast seemed really hard to figure out (at least to me it seemed quite cryptic), I uninstalled the software, probably the same day.
After that I would from time to time follow heated discussions about various CAT tools online, and at one point I even wrote a post called Friends Don’t Let Friends Use Trados or Any Other Cat Tool, more than six years ago.
Incidentally, that post is still being read every month by quite a few people and has dozens of comments – some people who are in love with CAT tool technology and vehemently disagree with me to the point of considering me an idiot and total luddite, and others who could not agree more with me about the uselessness of CAT tools and the threat they pose to our profession, since so many translation agencies try to use them to steal money from translators by waving a CAT tool in their faces.
Technology has had a major impact on many occupations for many centuries.
If we had a time machine to travel back in time to different countries, centuries and decades, we would see with our own eyes many occupations that are either completely or for the most part extinct now thanks to the adoption of new technology.
Two hundred years ago, a blacksmith was a promising occupation for young men who didn’t mind getting their hands dirty, who liked to work with hot iron, fire and horses, and who kept in really good shape without having to go to the gym every day.
It was a very good and stable occupation for many centuries, for more than a thousand years, until new transportation technology replaced horses with cars and put an end to a popular occupation for strong men about a hundred years ago.
To this day, one of the most common last names in English and many other languages is “Smith”.
Some more dated occupations are still with us, although they have become more automated, such as that of an executioner. Professional executioners in revolutionary France had to learn a little bit about mechanical engineering, but only as it pertains to the operation of heavy and sharp blades moving quickly under the effect of gravity, while modern executioners in Oklahoma or North Carolina need to know a little chemistry, but only as chemistry pertains to mixing up a perfect batch of lethal chemicals.
Some occupations requiring a skillful personal touch have hardly changed at all: the oldest profession, for example, or that of politician. The main difference between politicians in the good old days and politicians now is that up until a few decades ago, politicians had to be quite smart to get a crowd to cheer while they were shamelessly lying to them.
These days, even an idiot can read a good speech prepared by somebody else for him or her ahead of time from a teleprompter and look like a genius. Thanks to new technology, idiots now too have the chance to become president under the right circumstances.
(OK, so now that I got that out of my system, let’s come back to the subject of my post today.)
Last week somebody actually suggested that I use a CAT tool and I kind of felt sorry that I did not use one.
A translation agency that has been sending me work for something like 15 years sent me a big file last week, with over 80,000 Japanese characters, which would translate into more than 50,000 English words. The note in the accompanying email said, “This file would be best translated with a CAT tool.”
Since they gave me the big file anyway even though I don’t use a CAT tool, I see now that there probably are some advantages to using one. The file was a huge but very simple table consisting of more than hundred and fifty pages of rows and columns and all I had to do was to overwrite Japanese sentences in the central column with an English translation.
I saw that there would be an advantage to automating such a task with a computer tool, although it was not a problem to do it manually either with my favorite sticky memory tool: yellow post-it notes that I stick on the bottom of my monitor.
I write the terms that I need to remember in Japanese or whatever other language I am translating on the left side and my English translation on the right side and sometimes I change the translations when the context becomes more evident as I am translating. I have been doing this for at least 25 years now and I really like this method – this cutting edge technology, especially because it is such an inexpensive technology.
It used to be that once we bought a software package such as Microsoft Word, we owned this software and could use it for as many years as we found it useful, and we would then purchase a new version of the software only if we found the new improved functions of the software package irresistible.
But eventually, many corporations figured out that there is a better way to take money out of our pockets. When we buy software from them now, they may just sell us a license that needs to be renewed every year so that instead of making just a hundred or a few hundred dollars from a single software package, they make many hundreds of dollars by selling us the same thing over and over again for many years, preferably until we die, at which point the same companies should be able to start taking money out of the pockets of our children, and the same cycle would then be applied to their children, etc., and so on.
Incidentally, some software is still owned in perpetuity by people who purchase it, but more and more companies creating software products prefer to only sell licenses to people who buy their software packages with a license for a limited time, because it is obviously so much more profitable to sell the same thing over and over again to the same people.
With my favorite sticky memory tool, I am not forced to buy a new license every year. This tool costs three to five dollars depending on where I buy it, for about a hundred little pieces of lined yellow paper ready and eager for my bilingual input.
On the second day of my translating endeavor, as I was attacking the huge file while glancing once in a while at my sticky memory tool and counting my chickens before they were hatched (because 50,000 words would translate into such a nice piece of change!), I received another email from the agency, which said:
The client just realized how much the translation will cost and asked us to put it on hold. Can you send us what you have finished so far?”
So I quickly created an invoice for the few pages that I had translated and sent it with the translation to the agency.
And I went back to the Japanese patent that I had started translating before I was hit with the huge file, and instead of being sad about the lost income, I was actually relieved.
It was such a huge difference between translating by having to overwrite single sentences, or fragments of single sentences, in a table, and translating a real document, a patent in this case, in the full context of the entire patent application.
Although the expected payment for the big file disappeared from the horizon, I was much happier translating a smaller job at a much higher rate for a direct client.
I think I made the right decision when I decided to resist computer tools called CATs about a decade ago. These tools may be suitable for robotic processing of huge files such as the one that was given to me … and then taken away again the next day.
But they are in my opinion not suitable for patents, especially since many patent documents that I translate are available only as Japanese PDF files that become garbled after conversion to MS Word, as I have written in several posts on my blog.
I really much prefer translations of smaller documents, documents that start at the beginning and end at the end, namely patents that do not require tools other than yellow post-it notes.
I also think that translators who rely too much on technology for processing huge files put themselves at risk of being replaced completely by technology one day. After all, their rates have already been pushed down by at least 30% courtesy of our beloved “translation industry” once they started using these tools, have they not?
Total replacement of these translators by cheaper warm bodies living in countries with lower costs of living, and ultimately with computerized tools, may be the next step in the process. After all, that is what globalization is all about.
It was easy to replace a blacksmith with technology once people no longer needed horses for transportation, and robotic human processors who translate fragments of sentences into another language may be one day also for the most part, be replaced by technology. But I think it would be much more difficult to replace a wordsmith in his relatively narrowly defined field, such as this mad patent translator, who stubbornly refuses to use computerized tools that may be easily exploited by people who would love to control him with these tools.
The way I prefer to translate, I am in total control of the information that is in my head and on my sticky memory tool, and I intend to keep it that way.