As a language student preparing to be an interpreter, one of the most infuriating things I’ve had to deal with is having to go back and research terms again, especially if I’ve worked with them or translated them already in the past.
    It happens to all of us – you hear a complicated and specialized new term and its translation for the first time like los inhibidores selectivos de la recaptación de serotonina [ISRS] (in English, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), and If you’re anything like me and forgot to write it down, when the time comes that you actually need that translation you’re back to digging through mountains of, in this case, medical glossaries. Thankfully, I’ve begun to learn from my mistakes by incorporating one of the most important resources for an interpreter, the Translation Memory or TM.

What is a Translation Memory?

    A translation memory is a database of “segments” (sentences, paragraphs, words etc.) that have been previously translated used as an aid to human translators. They are like a combination of a dictionary and a glossary, including the original segment, the segment in context and its translation. They can be compiled manually in a word processing program or through the use of dedicated software, known as Translation Memory Managers (TMM).

Benefits and Obstacles

    Translation Memories are most useful for interpreting technical documentation and documents containing specialized vocabularies, such as documents in the legal, medical or scientific fields. They ensure that translated documents are consistent by including common definitions, phrasings and terminology, which is especially important when more than one translator is working on the same project. They can also speed up the translation process since Translation Memories “remember” past translations, making it so the translator only has to translate terms once. This in turn can reduce the cost of long-term translation projects, as repeated material does not require additional time.

    One of the biggest drawbacks of a Translation Memory is the fact that they are based on the idea that sentences and words used in previous translations can be “recycled.” This is of course not true, as one of the most important principle of translation and interpretation is to translate the meaning of the text, not the words or its components. Many different translations can exist for one segment, and using the wrong translation in the wrong context can have drastic effects on the quality of a translation. That being said, incorrectly recycling translations can still be avoided by including multiple contexts of a word or phrase and by double-checking work for contextual errors (something translators should be doing anyway). Another common set-back of TMs is the initial learning curve, as building the initial foundation of terms and phrases (or indeed, learning how to properly use a TM or TMM) can take time. Apart from this, TMs are most useful in highly technical settings, for example localization of products, where the terminology and phraseology can be extremely specialized and complex. This is not to say that they are not useful in other settings, for example marketing or creative, just that they are not as useful.

Still, I would argue that the benefits of having documentation of past translations far outweigh the disadvantages and the difficulties. Something as simple as writing a word and its translation down as soon as I heard it has helped me innumerable times, so imagine how much you could get out of a living, breathing database of phrases and terms! There are free TMM programs out there (the most notable being Wordfast Everywhere) for you to get started, or you can use any word processing program. Additionally, websites such as Proz function similarly to a TM by providing translated pairs and their contexts, but also have an active forum to ask questions or discuss submitted translations. It’s amazing that such a simple document can make such a difference on language and interpreting skills, so I encourage you start using Translation Memories today and see the benefits!

Do you use a Translation Memory already? If so, what do you find useful and not so useful about it? If you don’t use one, what do you use (if anything) to document your past translations and why? Leave a comment below, and check back next week for another edition of Links Interpreters Love.

-Written by William Cerkoney