Translation software tools encompass a variety of applications to handle different aspects of language translation or to accomplish similar tasks in different ways. Cloud-based translation platforms offer alternative workflows to desktop tools. Machine translation competes with human translation. Some tools focus on casual or on-the-fly translation, while others meet the demands of professional translators.
Human or machine translation
Although not the most important feature, machine translation (MT) is increasing in importance. Web searches for anything related to translation will invariably show pages on “free translation”, “automatic translation”, or “machine translation” among the top results, although someone looking for “translation software” may not be looking for MT specifically.
Most translations today will likely contain MT in some form: MT is commonly used as a productivity tool for pretranslation or vocabulary suggestions. In the hands of a professional translator, human quality levels are maintained. A human with proper qualification fixes all MT errors and thus guarantees overall quality.
Web vs. desktop
Control is decisive here. Freelance translators like to use desktop translation software, because all of their resources then stay on their own hard drive. Furthermore, the translator is fully in charge of all software features and can adjust quality checks to their liking.
SDL Trados (now SDL Studio) was one of the earliest professional translation tools on the market and it still is the dominant application. However, there is an ample selection of alternatives and each tool has its following of passionate users.
Agencies or corporate translation buyers, on the other hand, prefer web-based platforms because all content is in one place and shared in real-time. Even with very large teams, project managers can keep an overview and generate reports about project status.
Except for MT-only platforms, most translation software tools implement a common set of features that support the normal steps of a translation project: text extraction, translation, editing, proofing, text reintegration. Text analysis and project status reporting are fairly standard, as is terminology management and quality control.
File formats and integrations
As the goal is to translate texts from different sources, translation software supports a range of file formats. Depending on the particular focus of the tool, these would include MS Office or desktop publishing formats, web formats such as HTML or CSS, and JSON or other software resource types.
Translation software may also integrate directly with commonly used authoring applications via plugins or extensions. These help to extract translatable text for hand-off into the translation process. This is crucially needed when authoring tools lack the capability to export text and import translations.
Translation memories and glossaries
Translation memories (TMs) aid the translation activity itself. These are databases of previously translated phrases. As translators step through the content sentence by sentence or phrase by phrase, the tool searches the TM for relevant existing translations and offers them for easy insertion. A TM increases translation consistency, saves on typing, and thus reduces time and money spent on the project.
Glossaries define preferred translations at the word level and are used for guiding translators as well as checking translation quality. Many tools do not only load and use glossaries, but also offer terminology management features for modifying them and sending new terms through an approval process.
Besides editing and proofreading, tools have specialized quality control features. You are familiar with spell checking from MS Word or similar applications. In addition to such standard writing aids, translation tools can ensure that formatting, numbers and acronyms are carried over into the translation, possibly with appropriate modifications.
Cloud-based translation software is often tightly integrated with professional translation services. Either the tool is directly provided by a language service provider, or it may offer integrations with professionals via APIs or plugins. At the very least, cloud systems would have user management features to bring in third-party translators.
Owners of a cloud system thus have the option of handling project management on their own or to hand this task off to external services. These can be brought in as a stable part of the localization team or temporarily to translate projects. How this is best organized depends on the type, volume, and complexity of the translation needs of the translation buyer.
When to bring in professional service providers
A simple project with translations into a single target language may be handled by just a handful of people – a translator, an editor, a proofreader, possibly a technical expert or desktop publisher. Project management is simple and communications can happen via phone and email, while translators work with desktop software.
As your globalization strategy expands and you add more language pairs, the translation management becomes more involved. Corporations with global reach need dozens of target languages, so the number of project participants can go into the hundreds. Automated file hand-offs and notifications require people who understand and can manage the technology.
Technical understanding for quality control
Keeping an overview in global projects is a challenge in itself. Minor mistakes in project setup can have massive consequences downstream endangering budget and timeline. Thus, best involve seasoned professionals with the ability to predict the effects of initial choices on the whole translation workflow.
Quality checks at the tail end are also best performed by knowledgeable professionals. All quality checks yield “false positives” – error warnings when there is no real problem. An experienced translation manager can put these in perspective and possibly adjust tool settings to reduce them.
Likewise, no automated tool catches all possible mistakes – for quality, an experienced human should always have a last look. Quality control tools grow in utility if they are continually tweaked for the requirements of the given projects.
Translation software is thus a cover term for a wide variety of tools with many applications and features. Because these are highly specialized, translation software is most effective in the hands of experts. But since tools make it increasingly easy to bring in such experts, people without translation experience can benefit from the advances in this technology.