Computer-Aided Translation (CAT) tools and why we use them, Part 1

24 February 2015
24 February 2015, Comments: 0

If the business of translation is not well understood by the average person, the role of technology in translation is even more shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding. On the one hand, there are those who believe a computer can basically do the translating for them (let’s call this Machine Translation or MT). Many of us have had the experience of being handed a “translated” text and asked to simply “polish up” the English, or whatever the target language happens to be. One only has to take a brief look at the text to know that it was produced by machine translation (Baidu, Google translate etc.). In most cases, the text is not even comprehensible, let alone editable. A completely new translation is in order.

On the other hand, people who are rightly suspicious of MT then fail to make the distinction between MT and other ways in which computers may be used in the process of translation. Recently, I was offering our services to the publisher of a Chinese business aviation magazine. As soon as I mentioned that we use Computer-Aided Translation (CAT) tools, he waved me off, declaring that he was not interested in anything translated by a computer! Perhaps the misunderstanding could have been cleared up by saying that we use Computer-Aided Human Translation tools!

Let me back up here and try to explain.  I have translated the following diagram from the Peking University lecture notes that come with the Principles and Practice of Computer Aided Translation (计算机辅助翻译原理与实践) course offered through edX.  It helpfully sets out the levels of automization of translation on a basic spectrum.

Automatization of Translation diagram

On the far right we see Human Translation (HT), which should be self-explanatory. HT still includes the use of tools such as word processors, grammar and spell checkers, dictionaries and the internet.

On the far left we have Fully Automated High Quality Translation (FAQHT), which exists more as a concept than a reality!

In the mid-range you can see that CAT covers both Human-Aided Machine Translation (HAMT) and Machine-Aided Human Translation (MAHT). The first type, HAMT, would include things like having a human translator post-edit a text that has been translated by Google, Baidu, and so on. Here at XL Translation, we don’t see this as a viable option. There really is no machine which provides translation in the Chinese/English language pair that is good enough for us to simply post-edit. So when we speak of CAT tools, we are talking about MAHT – Machine-Aided Human Translation. If you are thinking that this means the human does all the translating and the machine doesn’t do any of it, you are exactly right!

So, how does the machine (i.e. the computer) actually aid the human in the process of translation? That will be the subject of Part 2 of this post.






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Rob Paix

Founder at XL Consulting
Founder and Executive Manager of XL China, Rob is originally from Australia but has lived much of his life in Asia, including 6 years in China. He particularly loves Xi’an and Western China. His varied career to date reflects his passion for aviation, travel, language and communication.

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