MT, CAT, and Skype Translator: clearing a few things up

Last month, an article was posted on the Guardian’s website about translation, machine translation (MT) and computer-assisted translation (CAT). You can read it here. Reading this as a freelance translator, I have to say that some of the information conveyed in the article was either flawed or confusing. I’m writing this blog post to clear a few things up.

First of all, what the article lacked was a clear definition of MT and CAT. The Oxford Dictionary defines MT as “translation carried out by a computer”. There is no human input involved here, and this is the technology ‘threatening’ to make the translation profession extinct. defines CAT as “a form of translation wherein a human translator translates texts using computer software designed to support and facilitate the translation process”. In other words, CAT is a type of software used by translators in the translation process.

When the article quotes Angelique Petrits, a language officer at the European Commission, it should have been made clearer that her comments referred to CAT tools, not to MT. Her quotes only refer to “technology”, which is ambiguous. Yet her references to technology “automatically replacing strings of texts which have been already translated” and contributing “to the consistency of terminology” make it clear to those familiar with the profession that she’s talking about CAT tools. CAT tools involve importing documents to be translated into the software, storing the translations created in translation memories, and saving repeated terms in term bases to ensure consistent translation.

One last thing to note is that the Microsoft “Star Trek” Skype Translator is not “impressive, making only a handful of mistakes.” The demonstration at the Code Conference was over-simplified, full of errors, and quite frankly, awful. It looked good to anybody who couldn’t speak German, but anybody who can will confirm that it is far from being impressive. Andy Way, associate professor of computing at Dublin City University, was quite right to say “You’re more likely to have everything else in Star Trek before you ever get a universal translator” in the Guardian article.

Did anybody else read the article and have similar reactions to mine? Feel free to post them in the comments below!

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