Why I use a CAT Tool to Translate Books

Computer-Assisted Translation―that's what CAT stands for. If you're not in the translation business, or if you're in the book translation business, odds are you're not familiar with it. No, CATs don't do the work themselves; we still need humans to translate documents (and books) from one language into another because a machine-powered translation doesn't have "gut feelings" or "cultural sensitivity" and it just won't cut it. But that's another story.

What this translation technology does is keep track of what translators type. Each sentence of the source document is isolated, so the translator types the respective translation and the combination is saved to a database. This is very useful when we translate technical materials and have been working with the same client for a long time, because there is a great chance that you'll come across sentences that are 100% identical or a close match to something you've translated in the past. So, in other words, CATs work as your memory and you don't have to remember or look through old files to make sure you're using the same words you did in the past.

Well, why am I talking about it on a blog dedicated to book translations? The sentences in a book will hardly repeat themselves, right? Wrong! I've recently had such an experience and it shows how valuable CAT tools can be. When I was translating Beto Córdova's "The Alliance," there were many repetitions that called for this technology, considering a book with character-centered chapters that have distinctive voices in each one of them, as well as lots of internal monologues and flashbacks, so it was only natural that key sentences were reinforced throughout the story.

In general, once you load a document into a CAT tool, you can see the original sentence on the left-hand side or top of the translation screen and then you can type the translation on the right-hand side or the bottom of the screen. This translation unit (language A = language B) is then recorded into a database and, once that sentence or something similar shows up again, the CAT retrieves the recorded translation unit for you and you can choose to use the exact same translation or adapt it according to the changes in the new original sentence.

Besides that, CATs can also be useful for glossary management. Some books will have keywords that you'll need to use over and over. Maybe a character uses certain lingo and you want to be true to that by using the same equivalents and register in the translation, so it's important to stay consistent with the vocabulary. The easiest way to do so is using a CAT as well.

While you're translating a sentence, you can highlight a word or expression in the source and highlight the corresponding terms in the translation, then save it to a database called glossary. Having the CAT display relevant words already added to your glossary, depending on the sentence you're currently translating, really beats spreadsheet-style glossaries, because you don't have to stop and look through it alphabetically, as you would a dictionary, to find the word you're looking for. And, believe me, that saves a lot of time and effort, while keeping consistency.

The CAT I've been using since 2008 is called Swordfish and I've selected it because we run Linux computers in the office, and this is one of the very few tools that actually works in any operating system, no need for emulators. It also gives me the advantage of working on either my desktop or laptop, because I only have to disable the license in one and enable it in the other to pick it up right where I've left it off. It's also compatible with other tools, so I can collaborate with clients and colleagues using other solutions without major complications.

If you're a translator and haven't tried out a CAT tool yet, I highly recommended that you take advantage of 30-day free trials to get an idea of what they're all about―whether you're translating technical documents or books. I'm sure a CAT will come in handy.


RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates two projects to promote Brazilian literature worldwide: Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS) and Cuentos Brasileños de la Actualidad (CBA).