Translation Memory - the Good, the Bad and the Ugly Translators and computers translation jobs
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Translation Memory - the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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Mark Ritter photoTranslation Memory is widely used by clients, agencies and individual translators. When used with certain types of projects, those with template information that appears repeatedly, there is a positive impact on quality, consistency, lead time and price. But “TM” is not a magic wand that can be waved over a translation with perfect results. Translation Memory it is NOT the same as Machine Translation.

A thinking, breathing translation professional does the work aided by a tool. When using a Translation Memory tool the skilled individual who is working on a translation still reads the source document segment by segment on the computer, sometimes accepting a translation that is a “match” to what has been already translated, but sometimes changing the translation based on context and usage.

Clients seeking to optimize single source content sometimes break down source document language into building blocks that do not retain adequate contextual information. A thinking human must pose the questions that a machine cannot.

McElroy Translation Chief Editor Dr. Mark Ritter recently reviewed how this technology applied to the translation of phrases used to compile Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) documents. Beneficial in many ways, he clearly points out that limitations exist. The results of his analysis of a specific set of client documents are not only interesting, but clearly illustrate the limitations of Translation Memory technology in this setting. We see that a wonderful tool is only advantageous when used judiciously by a skilled human.


I briefly looked over an Excel file composed of linguistic elements of MSDSes. The repetitive and formulaic character of the subject matter virtually suggests the approach of generating MSDSes from a fairly large but finite set of elements. And in fact that approach could work for isolated, complete phrases or complete sentences. The problem arises when one tries to use smaller elements in such a data file to compose phrases or sentences. Below are some examples of problems I can foresee in any attempt to provide a data file of translations that would accomplish its intended purpose: generating a professionally usable MSDS in the German language.

English is a very flexible language. We have hundreds or thousands of words that can be both a noun and a verb, or a noun and an adjective, etc., but this is much less common in other languages. To take one example from the data file:



This would be Barrikade as a noun,

but verbarrikadieren if used as a verb AND it would go to the end of the sentence in a command:

“Barricade the spill” Den Überfluß verbarrikadieren.



would likewise have quite different translations as a noun or a verb.

Sometimes the problem is grammatical:



Translation depends on usage:

Sulfuric acid is dangerous Schwefelsäure ist gefährlich (regular verb)

Sulfuric acid is consumed Schwefelsäure wird verbraucht (helping verb)

Sometimes the different meanings of a given English word must be expressed by two different words in the target language:



The proper translation varies according to whether “lower” means “more low” or “bottom.”

lower limit untere Grenze

lower levels niedrigere Werte

And, of course, “lower”  could also be a verb.

In many languages, nouns have genders that require appropriate endings on words associated with them:



Translation depends entirely on gender of subsequent noun.

The danger Die Gefahr

The risk Das Risiko

The advantage Der Vorteil

And sometimes, a single word can have a combination of the problems illustrated above:



Translation depends on part of speech and, as an adjective, on gender:

clear liquid klare Flüssigkeit noun

liquid gas flüssiges Gas adjective, neuter

liquid oxygen flüssiger Sauerstoff adjective, masculine

Each language would present slightly different obstacles to an attempt to compose sentences or phrases in it based on English words, but there would never be any assurance that you could do so safely.

The beauty of translation memory is that it only picks up full sentences or isolated phrases (the kinds of things that can safely be put into an Excel file of the type I looked at). Such items should only have to be fully translated once. But even what appear to be only slight variations in English require the intervention of a skilled translator (aided by technology of course) if they are to be acceptable to the target-language market.

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