Tomato, potato: what you cannot do with a translation memory

  • 01 September 2016
  • by Szabolcs Kincse
Tomato, potato: what you cannot do with a translation memory

No, no, no! You cannot boil water in a toaster! 

Ok, I understand this post will be slightly elementary for many of our kind and learned readers but… you know what? It will still be entertaining. For the question has arisen again: is a translation memory a tool for automatic translation?

What exactly happened is that my good friend Josh downloaded a memoQ free trial version because his boss entrusted him with a task. The task accidentally involved some reading in Italian. Needless to say, my friend spoke no Italian whatsoever, and his native English and the acquired highschool German provided not much of a clue as to what the text contained.

My good friend said translating this stuff with Google Translate would have been not too sexy so he opted for the sexy thing, memoQ. While we are rather flattered by our flagship product being the sexy thing in the market, we must make some things clear on behalf of the entire market (even on behalf of those on the not-too-sexy side): a translation memory is NOT a machine translation tool. That practically means that you will not translate anything automatically just by downloading a translation memory tool.

You can download a memoQ free trial version here – 
if you want to start translating right now

Let me shed some light on the problem. Translation memories are tools that behave (surprise, surprise!) like a memory: they will remember certain things for you. In our case they will remember how pieces of text were translated into another language, and, in better (and, I might add, sexier) cases they even provide you with various other services if your job is to translate stuff. Translation memories (again: in sexier cases) are oftentimes just one element in a row of other tools weaved together to make up a translation environment: a range of amazing and useful tools that will make you translate things faster and better. One (and, of course, the sexiest) of these tools available on the market is memoQ. (And of course we are proud to state the obvious: memoQ is the most comprehensive of those – it contains by far the most of these gadgets!

However, in order to make things work in a translation memory, you will need to provide it with data: this data is previously translated text in both languages – the language you are translating from and to. Without prior data an empty translation memory will just not remember things for you. Easy: you will never remember running the Boston Marathon if you have actually never run the Boston Marathon (how much I wish I did!).

Machine translation tools however are an entirely different cup of tea. No, no, no! They really are not in a tomato-tomato relationship with translation memories. They were originally created to translate things for people who wish to read things in a language they do not speak.

Historically, MT tools operate in two ways: based primarily on algorithms or primarily on a statistical approach. Algorithm- (or rule-) based tools use giant dictionaries and a set of rules to translate text from one language to the other (you will find much of the project to be algorithm-based), statistical tools in turn examine gigantic (really gigantic: billions and billions of pages) of text and create your translation based on statistical khm… how shall I put it… guessing. This approach works very successfully for languages with a lot of pages on the internet, and you will see it clicking very successfully away in Google Translate, for example.

Allow me to further confuse things for you, dear Josh!

While you cannot really translate with an empty translation memory, you can still do that in a translation environment. memoQ (and some of the less sexy tools of the market, too) offer integration with providers of machine translation. Why? (Here comes a thing I find translators do not often know either!) Because some of these tools are now so sophisticated that they can prove to be helpful in the translation process.

They can help create better memories in the translation memory enabling the translator to do his job faster – hence to earn more money in a shorter time. They still do not do the job of a translator, but they can, say, grab two or three memories and create a close enough translation for the translator, so they can create the translation in a shorter time.

I hope this explains it. And I suggest that you make your toast in a toaster, do not use the kettle for the purpose – even though both tools can be found (in most cases) in the kitchen. Tomato-potato!

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