CAT vs Machine Translation

January 1st, 2015

Computer-assisted translation is, technically, also machine translation, but in practice there is a huge difference between the two concepts.

The ancient problem everyone in translation services has to deal with never quite goes away: Someone hears what you do for a living, then innocently asks you why anyone pays you to perform language translation when they can just go to Google and have it do the work automatically – and for free, no less! And so you have to gnash your teeth and say a silent prayer and explain for the millionth time why machine translation is fine for short, non-critical translation tasks but completely unsuited for anything more complex or anything mission-critical.

And then, insult to injury: As the conversation unfolds you mention some software or tool you use in your work and they jump upon it, seizing it as proof that you are a hypocrite, because you obviously use machine translation to do your job! A hypocrite and a fraud, as you are charging people for something they could have for free! It is at these moments you begin to lose faith in your fellow man and contemplate living in a cabin out somewhere in the woods.

Machine Translation Versus CAT

Of course, let’s define our terms. The confusion arises from the fact that computers are, after all, machines, and as such technically you could say that any translation that uses a computer could be described as machine translation. But of course in the modern day just typing out a target file involves a computer.

Within our industry, machine translation means translation performed solely by a machine of some sort – most likely a computer of some sort, but not necessarily. Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) on the other hand is translation work done by a human being (such as myself) with the assistance of a computer and some software installed on it.

A Broad Category

The key is that any sort of computer tool or software used in conjunction with translation work can be defined as CAT. Even using a spellcheck to ensure the spelling of your target text is considered an example of CAT, as you are using a computer to enhance your work.

As a result, CAT is a very broad category of tools that can be understood to include just about anything, from a simple notepad application you use to take notes to a fully-fledged translation memory and management suite of software that handles many of the details of translation. Because that is, ultimately, the difference between MT and CAT: With machine translation you are relying on the machine to do the work for you. With CAT the machine is simply taking care of the easily automated aspects of translation so you, the expert, can put your brain and experience to work on the more complex and challenging aspects of any translation.

In the end, CAT is simply the way things are done, while MT remains a toy of sorts. Yes, Google Translate may be pretty amazing – but you don’t want to trust your business to it.