What’s Translation Memory?

March 5, 2024
8 minutes
What’s Translation Memory?
Many people have heard of legal translation, but few know what it’s or entails. In this article, we’ll hope to clarify all of that for you, and show you how it differs from other kinds of written translation.
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Discover how translation memory can boost your company’s productivity and quality when adapting your products abroad.

The demand for translated content has exceeded the overall productive capacity (and supply) of translators the world over. Now, people are more interested than ever in translation technology. Since the 1950s, several key milestones have been made:

  • ‍In 1954, the “Georgetown-IBM experiment” successfully produced a machine that could automatically translate a limited number Russian sentences to English.

  • The advent of personal computers in the 1980s and computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools in the 1990s got the ball really rolling.

  • The 21st century has seen even more developments as far as machine translation (MT) is concerned, plus the release of MT engines like Google Translate and Amazon Translate have popularized translation technology beyond imagination.

The discovery of translation memory‍ (TM) in the 1970s stands out as another major turning point in the translation technology’s evolution as well. Ever since, it’s quickly become every translator’s best friend and an essential component of CAT tools.

Let’s take a look at how TM works, what benefits it offers, and how it makes translation faster (when used right).

What is Translation Memory?

What is Translation Memory?

Translation memory (TM) is a database that matches text fragments in the source language to their equivalents in the target language. These fragments are are called translation units (TU), and can vary in length from paragraphs, sentences, and phrases to mere strings of words.

Translators who use TM software don’t have to translate everything from scratch every time they start a new project. TM also grants translators the opportunity to refer back to previous work, including by other translators, whenever they collaborate with companies and various professionals. It accumulates old translation projects and enriches new ones with potentially reusable content.

TM tools are now an integral part of virtually any translation project. According to a study published by CSA Research, the majority of translators who work with CAT tools use TM regularly.

What’s the difference between TM and a term bank?

Term banks and TM serve different purposes. TM finds similar translation units between texts and stores previous translations. Term banks (like dictionaries) focus on specific terminology, alongside their translations, definitions, and proper usage. The latter comes in handy on technical subjects/fields and helps with precision.

Term banks are great for:

  • Technical jargon: Term banks help translators tackle technical texts accurately by providing them a list of all the right terms they’re likely to encounter in all their working languages.

  • Acronyms: A single acronym can stand for different things to different industries. Term banks clear acronyms up for translators so they don’t make the same mistake twice.

  • Product names: Every business speaks its own product language. Sometimes you have to translate that a certain way; other times, things should be left alone. Term banks allow translators to make just the right decision.

How translation memory and machine translation differ

How translation memory and machine translation differ

Translation memory (TM) and machine translation (MT) may look alike, but in reality, they’re anything but.

TM are databases that real translators gradually create and feed with new content over time. MT is automatic translation carried out entirely by computers, not people.

MT often gives rise to an imbalance between quantity and quality. It can process large amounts of text quickly, but often at the cost of quality. Therefore, human translators generally need to step in afterwards and edit everything.

How does translation memory work?

How does translation memory work?

First, the translator uploads content to their CAT tool or other translation management system (TMS) for translation. Next, the platform in question then probes the source text and retrieves matching translations from the TM. Then, the translator opens up the source text and the proposed translation side by side, compares and contrasts them does one of three things. Either (1) they accept the recommended translation, (2) make changes to it, or (3) redo the translation from scratch.

100% and fuzzy matches

All TM software generally contains a ranking system that evaluates the accuracy of translation matches. A “100%’ match” is when the source text/segment seamlessly matches the text in the TM. If only certain parts match up, then you get what’s called a “fuzzy match.” The higher the percentage the fuzzy match is, the more accurate it.

Better still, the translator can reuse fuzzy matches but alter them until they achieve the result they’re looking. When there’s no match at, the translator must produce a new translation from zero, thereby enriching the database for future projects.

When use TM?

If certain fragments of whatever it is you’re translating repeat themselves regularly, TM will both speed up your job up and ensure consistency. TM is also a must for brand names that generate a high volume of translation and localization work, regardless of language pair.

‍Technical documentation and product manuals

Here’s an example for you: user manuals for phones, washing machines, and gizmos. When a new model of something comes onto the market, we often reuse content from previous manuals (e.g. maintenance instructions, warranty clauses) rather than creating a completely new manual. Instead, we only change those sections of text that describe whatever’s new or different about the project. Such content is full of 100% and fuzzy matches.

Legal and financial texts

Let’s face it, reading service terms & conditions or corporate financial reports is about as exciting as watching grass grow. However, have you ever noticed that the same parts often repeat themselves from one text to the next? Such documents generally follow a specific format, and address the same topics. TM makes translating them a whole lot faster.

Game localization

Video games all have plots, characters, places, and actions. Likewise, characters come with their own set of titles, props, and even iconic lines. When written successfully, certain bits of dialogue recur across different levels and versions. TL allows translators to translate and store these bits so they can re-use them later for consistency’s sake. We don’t want names and terms to suddenly change without reason, now do we?

Software localization

Software localization deals with software, websites, mobile apps, and all the elements there within (e.g. menus, buttons, interfaces). TM stores all that for translators, making their lives easier when the time comes to repurpose the material, and boosting the user experience as the well because the end content is unform.

Support portals

Like software and technical communication, support portals (or databanks) include menus, instructions, and documentation too. As content needs to regularly updated and re-translated – TM is a real life saver. Translators: brace yourself for 100% and fuzzy matches galore!

Product descriptions and e-commerce content

Product descriptions and e-commerce content alike are also full of repetition. Take an online education website, for instance. They often offer a range of courses to choose from: each one complete with its own description about content, objectives, audience, grades, certificates, and even completion requisites. Likewise, e-commerce websites almost always have their own cookie cutter format filled with product promo content. TM speeds the whole process of (re)translating all that and ensures cohesion across the board.

Why TM?

TM offers companies and language service providers (LSPs) alike a whole slew of great benefits. These center around three key criteria that virtually every business values: quality, bang for buck, and time. Here’s how:

TM ensures consistency

Providing consistent translation work is fundamental to any translator’s quality standards. However, any two related translation projects can occur months apart. In such cases, the translator might have a hard time remembering what it was they used for X example and how in the previous project(s).

Many resort to looking back on their older work, however the results aren’t always reliable. Editors often face similar challenges when reviewing something, due to the limits of the human memory.

Should these issues go unnoticed, your end user will likely dislike what their reading (or worse) due to inconsistent translation, impacting their overall experience. That then can translate into bad customer reviews and tarnish your brand’s reputation.

TM saves costs on repetition

Projects containing tons of repetitive content require less work than you may think, and actually save you money. TM stores all that, meaning that translation companies spend less effort matching content. In other words: less needs to be translated, and you get to shell out less.

TM spells faster delivery time and higher revenue

86% of participants in the aforementioned CSA study stated that TM enables them to deliver their work faster. No surprize here! A translator who uses TM can do their work in a jiffy if they’ve got a large volume of translation matches on hand. When that happens, they can also take on more projects and serve more customers.

For brands looking to have their apps and products localized, shorter delivery times spells swifter access to the market – and ultimately hello to greater revenue!

How does one create a sound TM?

In most areas of business, the best way to start a project is by having reliable and effective tools at your disposal. For translators, TM is no exception! If you want to avoid shoddy work and improve translation quality over the long run, here’s a few things to keep in mind when building yourself a decent TM:

Provide translators with context for content

For translators, context vital for them to understand the direction of whatever content they’re working on – this is especially true for software projects. Various CAT tools offer linguists numerous context options (some more so than others), including things like screenshots and graphics.

‍Prioritize TM recommendations

If you’re using multiple TMs for your project, give their suggestions priority to avoid problems. The highest match score generally appears at the top of the list in most CAT tools. Should you do you, you and your translator will know where to look and what to choose.

Use QA tools before adding a new translation to your TM

Even the most seasoned of professional translators make mistakes. Be sure to conduct routine automatic QA (quality assurance) checks before deciding whether to add a new translation to your TM. Moreover, advanced QA checks ensure consistency by verifying correct terminology and jargon usage.

Regularly review your content

Ask your translator/translation provider to review the end content for spot minor errors and missing bits. Doing so improves the quality of the output, and gives you the chance to asses your service provider’s work at the same time.

Manually add any changes made outside TM

Let’s say you were to edit some aspect of the language on website’s content management system. Add that change your TM to keep it up to date for future translation projects.

Give your service provider/customer feedback

Always communicate with language service provider or customer about any problems you find and changes you intend on implementing. Effective dialogue leads to solutions and better service all round.

Best practices to harness the power of TM

We’ve looked at how to build a translation memory. Now let’s explore a few tips on how to make the most of it!

Pay attention to the source text before translating

Before going about a new translation, reuse previously translated content (e.g. user guides and product descriptions) whenever possible. Let your TM find exact and similar matches for you, and then the rest will be walk in the park!

Adopt a centralized approach

Make sure your translators and editors are on the same page and use the same CAT tool and TM to guarantee consistency and excellence across all projects.

Take care of your TM

Have an editor regularly review and maintain your TM. That said, as this is no light task, choose someone experienced as opposed to an intern or new team member.

Boost efficiency with TM

A robust TM is a powerful tool and can boost your productivity. A weak one, on the other hand, creates extra work for you. If you follow all our tips on how to tap into your TM’s true potential, oh the rewards you shall reap!

Contact us today. If you want to venture boldly new markets, then don’t compromise quality!