Tech Talk: Software and Tools for Translators

Tech Talk: Software and Tools for TranslatorsIn 2014, I made two life-changing decisions: I committed to working as a freelance translator, and I purchased a PC after years of Apple use. I bought a cheap Lenovo, and told myself that, if I wanted to make money (which I wasn’t, then), I needed to spend it. Simple enough.

Then I tried opening a Microsoft Word file, only to learn that MS Office shipped separately from the computer itself. It might as well have come without a screen. What good was a laptop if I couldn’t even write something on it? On top of which, I’d have to pay a subscription for the privilege of downloading MS Office?

You cannot be a good, efficient, professional translator without the right technology, but professional-level software can be expensive, presenting a challenge for some first-time translators.

If you are looking to cut costs in at least one area, take heart: the web is full of free and open-source software that translators can use. Here are five programs I’ve found invaluable, not only because they literally have no price tag.

OmegaT

OmegaT is a free, open-source computer-assisted translation (CAT) tool in the same model as such proprietary CAT tools as memoQ or Trados. It takes up comparatively little space on your hard drive and is easy to learn to use: it comes with a preinstalled guide for getting started, making it ideal for new translators. OmegaT lets you create, manage, and import translation memories and glossaries, breaks text into easily translatable segments, and allows for easy insertion of previously translated terms, which will reduce your translation time enormously. A perk of its being open-source is that independent developers have written scripts and plug-ins, making it more customizable than other tools on the market. Speaking of which, you may wonder why, if there’s a free, customizable CAT tool available, a market for paid ones exists at all. First, OmegaT is not the industry standard. Most translation companies and freelancers use a proprietary CAT tool. For compatibility reasons, especially if you access the company’s TMs through the cloud, you may have to use the company’s CAT tool.  Second, open-source software is not known for its polish. OmegaT’s interface looks like it was designed by someone with Windows 95 nostalgia; personally, I’ve found its layout confusing, especially when looking for other segments. Nevertheless, it’s the quickest, cheapest way to introduce yourself to an essential translation tool.

Google Drive and Google Docs

You generate a lot of files when you translate, and they take up space. They’re also troublesome to search through. Enter Google Drive, a cloud-based (read: not on your computer) storage system for nearly anything with a file extension. Google Drive lets you create as many folders as you need to organize your materials and gives you 15 GB of storage for free. For $1.99 a month, you can increase that to 100 GB. You can use Drive to create any kind of document or file you might create using Microsoft Office with the benefit of instant saving and the ability to revert to previous versions very easily. It’s also portable: files can be converted to Drive format easily, meaning you can take an MS Word file and edit it from anywhere with an Internet connection. Searching for files on drive is also easier than on your computer, for the simple fact that you’re using Google’s search function, and not Microsoft Explorer’s. When was the last time you Binged something?

Drive isn’t the only cloud-based storage system: Dropbox is also free, and you can use Apple’s iCloud or Microsoft’s OneDrive. Still, Google Drive integrates directly with other Google software, notably Gmail. You can add Drive to your desktop as well, making it easyto transfer materials from your computer to the web. As more and more companies move toward cloud-based storage systems, using and understanding Drive will make it easier to collaborate with potential employers.

However, it’s important to realize that the cloud is not completely secure, and someclient contracts stipulate that translators not store any files associated with the translation on cloud-based servers. Nevertheless,many translators still use Google Drive or one of its competitors for collaboration with other freelancers or to have personal documents within easy access, and not all clients are as sensitive to the cloud

OpenOffice

For all its convenience, Google Drive is useless without an Internet connection. OpenOffice, a free version of word processing tools similar to the Microsoft Office suite, works offline like any regular piece of software, and isn’t subject to the connectivity hiccups that can slow down Google Drive. LibreOffice is another free word processing alternative to Microsoft Office many people use. For my purposes, the best thing about OpenOffice is that it’s intuitive: if you can use Microsoft Word, you can use OpenOffice Writer.

OpenOffice’s great shortcoming, which it shares with Google Docs, is that it doesn’t create the same type of files as Microsoft Word. This can lead to compatibility issues and inconsistent formatting. A Word document won’t necessarily retain all its features when you open it in OpenOffice, and vice-versa, meaning you must be ruthless in checking that you send a properly formatted document to clients. The consequence is that many translators do purchase Microsoft Office by the time they work with paying clients.

Evernote

Evernote is a sort of notepad that syncs across devices. It allows you to create checklists, take notes, and collaborate with other users. You can also use it to bundle notes together, making it a great tool for tracking clients and keeping client-specific information within easy reach. Instead of, say, keeping one spreadsheet for client contacts and a separate text file for notes taken at conferences, you can create and link two notebooks in Evernote, making useful information much more easily obtainable. And unlike Drive, it runs without an Internet connection.

ReNamer

I’d had no idea I might need to use a file-renaming device until Jost Zetzsche’s most recent Translator’s Tool Box came out and featured ReNamer at the top. (Are subscribed to the Tool Box? It’s a stream of tech information specifically for translators from one of the most successful translators in the industry, and there’s a free version.) It only takes a few email exchanges with a client to learn just how quickly different versions of documents can accumulate, all of them with the inevitable _proofread_edited_re-edited attached to the end. Say you have a naming system for your files that your client is disregarding, and you want to keep your records consistent: ReNamer allows you to rename files without opening them or using any of the clunky techniques you’d have to use in Windows Explorer, and it can do it in bulk. Ten different files that you’ve translated and want to label as such? ReNamerinserts_translated to all of them with one click of a button.

A good rule for anything software-related is that if a proprietary version of something exists, a free version does too. It takes very little searching and tenacity to derive as much utility from free software as from paid, which can make a big difference if you’re a first-time freelancer looking to move up from living on cheese sandwiches. And these are only five examples; what do you get for free that the rest of us pay for?

Header image credit: Picjumbo
Header image edited with Canva

Author bio

Dan McCartney

Dan McCartney is a freelance French and Spanish to English translator based in Chicago. Before translating, he worked as a consultant, instructor, and freelance math problem writer.

Computing for the Newbie

button-2076By Jost Zetzsche

First of all, technology does no good if there are no skills to use it with. No, I’m not talking about great programming or software development skills, but instead very fundamental skills that can’t be assumed to be present.

  • Typing: I’m an OK typist now, but I’m sure that I lost a few thousand dollars in my early career as a translator because I never had formal training and was very slow at first. Take the time to go through some kind of typing course to increase your productivity. Make sure that you learn to type in your target language on a target language keyboard (and learn how to install different language keyboards on your computer). Also make sure to learn how to use as many keyboard shortcuts as you can so that you have to use the mouse as little as possible.
  • Word processing: You’ll need to be confident with basic office software, especially word processing. This does not have to be MS Word, though I would recommend it. You should know how to use advanced search-and-replace features, be familiar with complex formatting and styles, have a good handle on tools like templates and format painting, and know what you should not do in MS Word (such as working in HTML files).
  • Browsing and querying: It’s important to know the basic syntax of more advanced search queries and have a good idea of locations where you can find answers (and those don’t have to be only dictionaries). I would recommend tools like IntelliWebSearch that enable you to find online content right from your desktop. You also will want to know how to quickly find information on your desktop or cloud-based personal storage.
  • Basic computer maintenance: You don’t have to have the skill level of a system administrator, but you should know the basic steps for how to keep your computer in good shape and running more or less seamlessly. You say you can also have your tech guy do this for you? Sure, but the last time I checked, that resulted in lost productivity and income.
  • Code pages: You need to know what Unicode is, how to make a basic code page conversion of text-based documents, and in general understand what code pages are and why they are relevant for translators.
  • Tags: You’ll never need to learn the actual function of tags in formats like HTML, XML, or the many other formats that are based on XML, including all the translation memory exchange formats (TMX, TBX, or XLIFF). But you do need to be able to distinguish a tag from other text and learn to respect and not touch it. (A lack of respect for tags is one of the quickest ways to turn your present client into a former client!)

So much for the general skills to adequately use technology. Now to what the technology should be:

  • Operating system: I don’t care! I personally use Windows and I’m happy with it because I never have to worry about that very question. (So far I’ve never encountered any client who wants me to use an application that is available only on a Mac.) The truth is, though, that it’s becoming more and more irrelevant. You can virtualize Windows on Mac or Linux computers, work in  programs that are supported by various operating systems (such as Java-based programs), and, most importantly, more and more translation jobs are moving into a browser-based system, anyway.
  • Office programs: Same answer as for the operating system: I don’t care. Yet, it’s just a lot easier to have a copy of MS Office so I don’t have to worry about conversion issues with files that clients send me.
  • Translation environment tool or TEnT (aka CAT tool): The first thing you’ll need to do is look at a) what kind of materials you’re translating and b) what kind of clients you are or will be working for. The kind of material might determine whether it’s important to have a translation memory (it might not be so important if you work with highly creative material), and the client might prescribe a certain tool or at least your ability to work in the format of a certain tool. (Many translation environment tools often support the interim formats of other TEnTs).

To come back to the first criterion — the kind of materials you’re translating — it doesn’t really matter what it is; you will still want to manage your terminology. If you’re looking at only doing that, you might want to use tools like Lingo or Xbench (and there are many other tools that manage terminology as well). While these tools don’t directly interact with your translation process, it’s very easy to access the terminology content that they maintain for you and it’s also easy to quickly add more.

If you are working in projects where it would be helpful to access previously translated material (which essentially is the case for any and every technical, legal, medical, or other functional translation) and/or you’re working with many different file formats and/or you’re working in teams with other translators, you will want to use a full-blown TEnT (which will not only provide the translation memory feature but also terminology maintenance, QA features, file conversion functions, and many other tools). You might eventually end up using (and buying) several tools, but you need to make a decision where to start and which tool brings you the furthest.

Don’t start with a “cheap” tool just because it’s a beginner’s tool. If you use a “cheap” or free tool, use it because that’s the tool you really want to use. And forget about the word “cheap” anyway, because what you’re really looking for is a tool that has a good return on investment. A $10 tool can be a waste of money, whereas a $1,000 tool can be a steal.

I would classify TEnTs into these categories:

  • There are large tools like Trados or memoQ (or others) that are powerful and might give you access to jobs that can only be done with these tools. (These are the kinds of jobs where the translation materials are located on a remote server that can’t be accessed with any other tool.) They might also help you market yourself to companies that look for translators for these jobs.
  • Then there are tools that have a slightly geeky approach like the Java-based OmegaT or CafeTran. These can be very powerful in the right hands, and they provide access to almost any kind of job (except the ones mentioned above).
  • Finally there are the browser/cloud-based tools like Wordfast Anywhere, XTM or MemSource that give you a great deal of independence regarding the kind of hardware (even tablets!) and operating systems you use. They also can work with a large number of formats (though you might have to get a little creative when it comes to working at the beach café without wifi).

Here’s the important thing to remember: you can’t really get it wrong. Make sure that the tool has an active and loyal following (most do), and invest in training (either by yourself or through a third party). And don’t think that your productivity will skyrocket immediately. In fact, it might never skyrocket, but it will surely increase if you do it right.

You’ll find all these points mentioned in much, much greater detail in my Translator’s Tool Box, a 400+ page ebook that is the ultimate technical resource for beginning and experienced translators.

——————

About the author: Jost Zetzsche is an English-to-German translator, a localization and translation consultant, and a widely published author on various aspects of translation. He writes regular columns in the ATA Chronicle and the ITI Bulletin; his computer guide for translators, A Translator’s Tool Box for the 21st Century, is now in its tenth edition; and his technical newsletter for translators goes out to more than 10,000 translators. In 2012, Penguin published his co-authored Found in Translation, a book about translation and interpretation for the general public. You can find his website at www.internationalwriters.com and his twitter handle is @Jeromobot.