Apr 21, 2012

TM Follies

A recent comment by Iwan Davies on Twitter revealing a reviewer's rather odd notions of the requirements imposed on translation by the use of a translation memory tool led me to reflect with a friend on some of the very strange and wrong ideas that persist in some minds with regard to such technology. In the case of the twitstream discussion, the reviewer's stupid notion that each segment in a translation must stand on its own without context provoked an interesting flurry of responses, ranging from the astute observation from @PaulAppleyard that "if you wanted to translate segments as 'standalone', then you would work in a random segment file, not a text that flows..." to some rather disturbing remarks from a few to the effect of "this is why I don't like to use such tools". Various people pointed out that modern translation environment tools such as SDL Trados Studio, OmegaT and memoQ make use of context in their translation memories to avoid the problems of more primitive systems which, in the hands of translating monkeys, too often result in matches being used in very inappropriate ways.

The list I could compile of wrong-headed ideas about TMs is a long one, and I would probably only capture ten percent of the foolishness on a lucky day. A few highlights in my memory include:
  • A statement by an otherwise respected colleague some years ago that translators must not sacrifice potential "leverage" by combining segments to make sense in the translation. This included cases where someone inserts
    returns and line
    breaks into the sentence to
    make it fit in some odd space. In a source language like German, where word order is often very different than in a good English translation, this can quickly pollute a TM to the point of being worst than worthless. This in fact describes the real state of many "promiscuous" agency TMs that I have seen over the years. Fortunately, advanced features in modern translation memories, like memoQ's "TM-driven segmentation" encourage much better practice among smart service providers today.
  • The widespread notion that translation memory systems are only useful if one works on repetitive texts. I've got news for you: much of the repetitive stuff was outsourced to King Louie & Co. years ago. And yet I still find great value in working with good TMs. Why? A friend of mine summarized it nicely the other day when she talked about how she spent two hours researching a very obscure term for roadworks equipment in a minor European language: "The next time this comes up, I can find it right away and see the context." Indeed. I am amazed sometimes at the obscure technical terminology that comes out of my personal TM with its 12 year record of my work. Sometimes that amazement is even positive. An hour invested in researching a term and saving it in a TM (or much better: a proper termbase with metadata including domain´, source and examples of use) is probably several more hours saved over the next few years. At least.
  • The idea that a translation memory is a reliable source of terminology and obviates the need to create and maintain termbases or proper glossaries. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Particular offenders in this regard are agencies with their brothel-like practices of letting any number of translators screw the end customers' texts. Do a concordance search to find the right term in one of those TMs? Riiiiiiiiiight. Even agencies I've worked with for years who have made a real effort to keep TMs clean can't keep the terms in them on the straight and narrow. And using TMs to replace a real termbase, even a limited one, sacrifices the enormous potential benefits of automated terminology QA procedures offered by some modern translation environments.
  • King Louie & Co. as well as many other agencies in the race to the bottom of the quality barrel truly believe that once a good TM has been established by top translators, the second- or third-tier team can take over at lower cost and keep the customer happy. Well... at the moment, the lock on my Volvo's rear hatch is broken. I could get it fixed by a mechanic on Monday, or I could follow my neighbor's suggestion, and just hold it shut with a bungee cord. And the next time a tail light cover gets broken, I could just tape some red or yellow plastic film over it. Replace the hubcap that flew off when I hit that pothole? Naw. But sooner or later, people will notice the difference and draw their own conclusions. Will those be good for business? Can a jobbing student equipped with a good TM really produce the quality of legal translation you can rely on before the court? Trägt er auch 'nen gold'nen Ring, der Affe bleibt....
I have noted over the years, that most of the best clients never ask about translation memories or the tools related to them, even though a good number of them are aware of the technology and many of these use it. But these are the ones who understand that the monkeys who rely slavishly on CAT tools without the use of BAT* too often produce stale, stilted text unsuited for its communication purpose. At best. And all the king's machine translation engines won't change that.

Nonetheless, I believe there is great value for nearly all translators, even "creatives", in using advanced translation environment tools. But that value will not be in the same methods nor in the same features necessarily. Calls to "throw away your TMs" with the introduction of advanced alignment technologies like Kilgray's LiveDocs in memoQ, which allow final edited versions of past documents to be incorporated quickly when a new versions are to be translated, may be a bit premature, but they are often appropriate in my recent experience. And combinations of that with voice recognition technologies, term QA tools and other features offer a wealth of creative possibilities for taking the best and leaving the rest in our quest for better results and working conditions.

* brain-assisted translation


  1. "The widespread notion that translation memory systems are only useful if one works on repetitive texts."

    Agree 100%. Last time I had to translate a "highly-repetitive" text must have been sometime last century. What is really important is using the translation memory to find my previous translations in context. Incidentally, that's also why a tool such as Xbench is so damn useful.

    And all those people (usually found on ProZ) that claim they don't need translation memory of any kind because they have a perfectly good translation memory between their ears (or words to that effect), are kidding themselves.

  2. "...they don't need translation memory of any kind because they have a perfectly good translation memory between their ears..."

    Yeah, I had one of those memories as a kid. But all good things come to an end, and sooner or later the garbage can of one's mind starts to overflow and the extra storage offered by technology is welcome.

    Why would you use Xbench as opposed to a master TM for reference in your CAT tool? Is your objective to separate the concordance searches?

  3. Its' mostly something I started to do when I worked in Trados "Classic" - I started to use Xbench on exported memories so as to be able to do a reverse concordance search, something that was not possible in Trados (it is of course now possible in Studio), but then I found that being able to save in an Xbench project a set of memories and glossaries for each customer or industry helped considerably.


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