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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Bell

What are CAT tools?

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

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Andrew Bell is a medical translator working from Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan to English trading under the name Bell Johnson Translations. You can connect with him by using the following links:



Twitter: @belljohnsonTR

Instagram: @belljohnsontranslations


First and foremost, I’d like to welcome you to the new biweekly blog by Bell Johnson Translations! The entries are written by the director and translator Andrew Bell, and he’ll be discussing anything and everything related to translation. So, without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to today’s topic: CAT tools.

CAT tools are a fundamental part of a translator’s tool kit, but if you’re not familiar with the translation process you might be wondering why are CAT tools so important? I could write a very long essay on this topic (and believe me I did when I was doing my master’s degree in translation), but I’ll try to give you a summarised version.

CAT tools stands for computer-assisted translation tools, and they are one of the most powerful weapons in the translator’s arsenal, as they increase productivity and the overall quality of the translation. This topic can become very complicated if you start comparing individual CAT tools as they all come in many shapes and sizes. However, despite all these different flavours, the one thing that all CAT tools have in common are the following:

1. Segmentation

CAT tools are used to segment the source text (the text which is being translated), usually into individual sentences. Simply put, this means the translator can work with each individual sentence rather than big bodies of text. CAT tools also display these segments in user friendly columns or rows with a space next to each of them for the translator to write their translation. There are a lot of advantages to working in this way, but I think most notably it makes it easier for the translator to check they haven’t missed an important piece of information.

Screenshot of segmentation in MemoQ.

2. Translation memory

If dog is a man’s best friend, then translation memory is a translator’s best friend. A translation memory is basically a database that stores (or remembers) everything that the translator has already translated. Then if the translator works on a similar text in the future, as would be the case when updating a document or website, the translation memory will be able to remind the translator how they previously translated some segments. When the segments in the text being translated and the translation memory are exactly the same, the segments in the translation memory can be recycled which saves the translator a lot of time and ensures translations across documents are consistent. However, even when segments are not exactly the same, the translation memory will assess how similar the segments are and make suggestions regarding what it thinks the correct translation will be. Of course, if the segments are not very similar, the suggestions may be useless, however for segments that are over 80% similar, the translator might be able to use some of the suggested material.

Screenshot of translation memory results in MemoQ.

3. Termbase

Termbases, also known as glossaries, are another common feature of CAT tools. They are used to ensure the correct terminology is used consistently throughout the translation. Whenever the translator comes across a term that is stored in the termbase, the CAT tool will alert them, usually by highlighting the term, and show them the termbase entry. Termbase entries can also be used to provide extra information about a term, such as definitions, examples, pictures and even forbidden terms. This is really useful if we consider that translation is not an exact science and there are usually dozens of ways to express the same thing in every language. However, sometimes we need terms to be translated in a particular way to avoid confusion, and this extra information can help the translator choose the most appropriate term. Imagine we’re translating a Mexican recipe for tacos into English. If you’re a fan of tacos, you probably know that most Mexicans add a little ‘cilantro’ as a finishing touch. Even though cilantro is commonly used in American English, you might get a few puzzled faces from a British audience as we would tend to say ‘coriander’. In which case, it would be appropriate to add cilantro to the termbase and mark it as forbi

dden if translating for a British audience. Then if the translator uses this term, an error message will pop up on the screen prompting them to use a more appropriate term.

There are of course many other features that I could talk about, but to keep things simple, I will save them for a future blog. I hope you’ve enjoyed my brief introduction to CAT tools and now have a better understanding of what CAT tools are and why translators use them.

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