The CAT is Out of the Bag. Now, is it Alive?


I am old enough to remember the days when translators relied solely on paper dictionaries and when a CAT was just a home pet.  And being the dinosaur I am earns me the right to be stubborn, too. So, when the innovation called Computer Aided Tools (CAT) started to get traction in the professional translation circles, in the mid-1990s, I was uninterested and unimpressed.

That CAT was as moody and capricious as any other feline I had seen. It was high-maintenance, too, with loads of CD-ROMs to read, clumsy dongles to install and a never-ending stream of upgrades to manage. Further compounding the problem was a vast array of vendors that rushed to the market all at once: Trados, WordFast, SDL, Transit, Déjà Vu, etc.

As if it weren’t enough, a wave of mergers and acquisitions soon followed, leaving in its wake names that just got longer, translation memories that did not talk to one another and conversion programs that either over-promised or under-delivered or both.

Still I gave a few of those systems a try. I even distributed the Trados suite in Brazil for a time. However, at that point I was starting to make the transition from translator to interpreter, so words carried less weight as a metric of my productivity. Adding to my reluctance, I now had to deal with strings of texts in isolation, one line at a time, which caused me enormous frustration. I felt totally alienated from the context I attached so much value to.

I also found out that the programs slowed me down considerably, despite promises to the contrary. Coming from a Jurassic age when typewriters were still around, I took touch typing seriously and eventually developed incredible speed. That claim is still disputed by my colleagues. They argue that I simply didn’t put in the time and effort needed to get the hang of it. I stand my ground.

Fast-forward 20 years, and the CAT is now popping its head out the bag again. Or so it seems. New translation platforms have reached the market that are now cloud-based and mostly brand-agnostic. These new players promise to eliminate the complexity involved in making translation faster and more accurate.

By keeping under one roof several functions of the trade (e.g. translation memory compatibility, terminology handling, project management, collaboration, etc.) companies like SmartCAT and Smartling promise to bring back to life the CAT I had long pushed out of view. They will do so for a fraction of the cost. They will do so with the convenience of 24/7 access to your stuff in a dozen different languages and formats. SmartCAT will actually offer most of those functions free of charge for translators as well as translation agencies.

Or so they say!

Like in the case of Schrodinger’s cat, making sense of those claims requires opening the box and taking a long, good look at the CAT. Only thus can you authoritatively pronounce it dead or alive. Until you give it a try, the CAT will remain in limbo, simultaneously dead and alive, like in the famous quantum experiment.

Will you let the cat out of the bag?

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2 thoughts on “The CAT is Out of the Bag. Now, is it Alive?

  1. As the translation profession (and thus trained translators like you and I are, cher collègue) are slowly but CONSTANTLY being replaced by ALL kinds of softwares which, as you mentioned, “operate” (almost always) for free, 24/24 and 7/7, with no need for holidays, hospital time-outs or even coffee/pipi breaks, why still bother with annoying, quality-concerned, costly (yes – we have rents, taxes and doctors to pay!) , meticulous and careful ” language-loving dinosaurs”, huh?
    Asking work colleagues or “good pals who master 6 languages” to fly over the final product and eliminate whatever gross errors they might stumble over is more than enought: “we all understood 65% of the content and in 11 days, this document/ message/info won’t be needed anymore anyway…”. Sure – of course. What else.: these CATs are all we need.

    1. Yve, CAT tools do _not_ operate without humans running them. They are in essence tools made _for_ translators, in order to make _translators’_ work more focused and comfortable.

      Perhaps (just guessing), by “these CATs” you mean/understand “machine translation,” which has actually little to do with what CAT tools really are. If you have time, please do read this article about myths about CAT tools:

      Thank you!

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