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Featured Article from The ATA Chronicle (July 2006)

Translation Tools: Getting Your Hands Dirty

By Donna Sandin

As ellout crowd of 90 translators gathered May 13 in Jersey City, New Jersey, for a fast-paced, full-day seminar entitled "The Translator's Tool Box, or The Cons of Not Being a Pro." This was another in a series of ATA's Professional Development Seminars, which offer translators and interpreters an excellent opportunity to continue their education on a variety of subjects while networking with colleagues. (Six ATA continuing education points were awarded for attendance at this event.)

The presenter, Jost Zetzsche, is an English-to-German translator who has written extensively about translation tools. He publishes the biweekly Tool Kit online newsletter, "for people in the translation industry who want to get more out of their computers." Zetzsche researches tools and loves using them, but insists he is not a "geek" (i.e., not technically oriented). He is truly enthusiastic about the subject, and this certainly was apparent during the seminar.

During his opening remarks, Zetzsche observed that an entire software industry has developed to serve the translation and interpreting industry. It seems translators and interpreters have become so important that software developers are catering to us. Zetzsche emphasized that having the right mindset to use these tools is part of what makes a translator a professional. As linguists, we use sophisticated intellectual and reference tools when translating, so why should we hesitate to become computer experts? Our ability to handle different file formats, depending on what the client wants, should be a source of pride. The ability to use advanced tools helps distinguish us as professionals.

Zetzsche began his presentation by showing us ways to make the most of our existing systems. For example, Windows XP gives the user the ability to perform lots of everyday tasks-just not very well. In contrast, small programs known as "utilities" are very good at the specific tasks they are designed to perform, and give us smarter, less convoluted ways of accomplishing things. Although they appear to save only a "little" time, those minutes can add up to hours over the course of a year.

For example, Zetzsche demonstrated how easy it is to use a program called "Convert," available from, to quickly convert the most popular units of measurement. A utility called ClipMate ( will store even large chunks of clipboard material for as long as you need it. Another very useful utility is Practicount (, which will count the words in all of the files in a job, even if they are in different formats (but not, of course, those scanned PDF documents that are only graphic images). The program is very much geared to translators, and is handy for estimating the cost of a job because you can quickly count all of the source texts. Admittedly, this does not eliminate the possibility of disputes about the "right" word count, since software definitions of what constitutes a "word" vary.

Most of the programs Zetzsche discussed are free. Their developers tend to be passionate about their products, and are responsive to feedback from users who may suggest some tweaking. These individuals are thrilled to have invented a tool that so many people find useful. So if something about your system is really annoying, search the Internet and chances are you will discover that someone else has found a way to solve it.

Zetzsche mentioned quite a few specific programs, but repeatedly cautioned us that competing programs exist that may be just as good or reliable. When asked about the dangers of downloading utilities, he said that he does not side with the conspiracy contingent, but he does read about a utility in advance to help him decide whether it is legitimate and safe.

In the event of a disaster, Windows XP has a System Restore feature. It will take your computer back to a previously satisfactory state if you believe that something has gone wrong. System Restore affects only the EXE files, so it will not affect your documents.

Zetzsche spent a fair amount of time on the subject of translating HTML files. He showed how tricky this can be and advised us never to use Microsoft Word or Notepad to translate Web pages. Even though Word pretends it can work with HTML, one wrong keystroke can ruin the codes in these files. Furthermore, we should use an HTML editor that does not reformat the file.

Using ANSI code to produce foreign characters is silly, Zetzsche said. We should be able to train ourselves to use better methods. To learn more on this subject, his article on keyboards, entitled "Choosing the Right Key: Switching Keyboards on a Windows System," appeared in the April 2006 issue of The ATA Chronicle.

On the subject of the dreaded PDF files, Zetzsche acknowledged that conversion programs do not work very well. In the case of a scanned PDF, the text is saved as a graphic, and only an optical character recognition program, such as ABBYY FineReader or OmniPage, can transform it into text. Both of these offer slimmed-down versions for use strictly as a PDF converter.

Zetzsche explained that one of the key reasons for making an effort to learn the various software formats is that it will help keep your clients happy. After all, he reasoned, when dealing with clients, we want smooth, untroubled relationships. This means, for example, not insisting on using WordPerfect when clients will not use it. Documents prepared in different office suites and using different operating systems are supposedly mutually compatible, but if a project is complicated, problems are bound to crop up. We cannot expect our client to spend time converting our files. On a related matter, in Zetzsche's opinion, it is bad practice-even impolite-not to "zip" a file, especially for multi-file jobs.

In terms of desktop publishing programs, none are particularly fun to work with, so translators need to keep this in mind when deciding how much to charge a client. In Zetzsche's opinion, FrameMaker is by far the best for translation and works with all computer-assisted translation tools (CATs), while QuarkExpress is extremely challenging and not to be tackled by the fainthearted. Adobe InDesign is a terrific program that has the advantage of supporting Unicode.

For voice recognition software, one of the best programs is Dragon Naturally Speaking, and its "Preferred" edition is perfectly adequate (see Training time for this kind of program has been minimized, but do not buy it unless you are willing to continue to use your mouse and keyboard for certain tasks. Using voice recognition 100% of the time is not practical, and you save trouble by using both voice and keyboard functions.

As the final topic for the day, Zetzsche discussed various CAT tools, which include not only translation memory (TM) tools, but any tool intended to assist a translator in the translation process. He thinks that a more appropriate name for these would be "translation environment" tools. Unfortunately, estimates indicate that only about 10,000 to 15,000 translators and interpreters worldwide (out of a universe estimated at 300,000) use TM software. Zetzsche's mission was not to tell us which tool to use, but to urge us to start using one. He emphasized the usefulness of CAT tools in terminology management, an area in which most translators need improvement. Terminology development helps translators focus on the kind of product only they can produce.

To those who say that TM tools are not intuitive enough, Zetzsche responds that the translation process (i.e., what we do) is itself complex. Hence, tools developed to help us perform our task more efficiently cannot be anything but complex. Translators elevate themselves above other colleagues and distinguish themselves as human translators when they use these tools to develop and manage terminology that is refined for their specific needs.

We should remember that all TM tools are "empty" when we take them out of the box. It is our own work that enables us to build up the database. All seminar participants received a CD copy of the latest edition (4.1) of Zetzsche's Translator's Tool Box-A Computer Primer for Translators. This 264-page PDF file is highly readable and chock full of all the computer-related information that is relevant for the modern translation professional. It is available from for $40.

If you missed this seminar, ATA offers many opportunities for professional growth. Just check out ATA's website ( for the latest opportunities to expand your knowledge and earn continuing education points!

Donna Sandin has been a Portuguese-to-English translator for more than 25 years, including several years spent living and working in Brazil. Since retiring from the Department of State Office of Language Services in 1999, she has worked as a full-time freelancer specializing in legal and business documents. Contact: