Translation memory (TM) systems have become the equivalent of a workbench for the modern translator. Yet feedback to our recent post Primer: Translation memory vs. glossary indicated that many medical device and pharmaceutical companies are unsure about the benefits and challenges of a TM system.

To help you evaluate the pros and cons, see if any of the following ring true:

  • Documentation tends to be repetitive. We wish we could store terms and sentences as they are translated and then re-use them later in the documentation.
  • Applications are updated regularly. Why can’t we identify changed sections and translate only those?
  • Translation takes too long. Wouldn’t it be nice to have multiple translators work on one project simultaneously without risking inconsistent terminology?

If you find yourself saying “yes, yes, yes”, translation memory technology may be able to help. But there are many issues you need to be aware of before you get started:

Many systems to chose from

Several companies offer competing technologies. Here are some of the many TM products that are available:

  • Felix
  • Déjà Vu
  • Wordfast

How do you decide between these different products? Much depends on personal preference, required functionality, budget considerations, language needs, and compatibility with systems used by suppliers and overseas affiliates.

How does it work?

TM applications are computer-aided translation tools that use database and code-protection features to simplify the translation process. They are designed to improve the quality and efficiency of the human translation process, not to replace it.

The systems basically consist of a database in which each source sentence of a translation is stored together with the target sentence. Any new source sentences will be searched for in the database and a match value is calculated.

When the match value is 100%, the translation of the source sentence from the database is inserted into the text being translated. If the match value is below 100% and above a certain user-definable percentage (i.e., “fuzzy match”), the old translation will be inserted as a translation proposal for the translator to review and edit. Sentences with match values below that margin have to be translated from scratch. New and changed translation proposals will then be stored in the database for future use.

Significant productivity gains

Depending on the types of document, the consistency of the source-language writing, and the software applications used, TM tools can improve productivity levels anywhere from 10% to 50%.

Companies implementing a TM solution typically do so with an eye toward accomplishing one of three objectives:

  • improving consistency
  • minimizing turnaround time
  • reducing translation cost

Of the three objectives, the first—improving consistency—is most readily obtainable. Reductions in turnaround times and translation costs require careful analysis and planning; TM technology is not a silver bullet.

Four main obstacles

TM tools are not appropriate for all operations. Even in ideal applications, significant hurdles obstruct the way to reducing turnaround time and/or translation costs:

1. Process

TM tools do not easily fit into existing translation or localization processes. To take advantage of TM technology, translation processes must be redesigned, from the ground up.

One example of this is the issue of in-country reviews. Many medical device manufacturers require translation sign-offs by local staff. Does this mean that the entire text needs to be approved? If yes, this deprives the translation manager of a significant opportunity for cycle-time reduction. If no (i.e., only the new or changed text needs to be approved), a process must be designed so that the client, translation vendor, and reviewer can identify, exchange, and sign-off on text segments without context.

2. Customization required

Despite what you hear from tool vendors, few people are able to effectively use any of the translation-memory applications straight out of the box. Some of the programs use non-standard menus and dialog boxes. All of them will require the user to learn new terms and concepts. And none of the filters to desktop-publishing applications such as InDesign or QuarkXPress work without significant adaptation.

When you invest in a TM application, plan on buying sufficient training and customization support!

3. Significant investment required

The price of the software runs from a few hundred to thousands of dollars per user, depending on the product you buy. Your start-up costs will also include the price of importing your past translations into the TM database (this processes is called “alignment”), the training as mentioned above, plus any add-on products such as DTP filters, terminology tools, etc.).

On-going maintenance does not come cheap either. Plan on upgrading each user to a Windows PC with a high-end CPU, lots of memory, and a fast network card. TM databases also require significant hard disk space. Each user, and—in the case of centrally managed TMs—the server, will require additional space for TM storage.

4. Protect your TM investment

Most of the benefits from your TM investment will be enjoyed over the long haul. You must take proactive steps to protect this investment:

  • Develop a strategy for maintaining the TM databases, either at your site or at the translation vendor’s site. Issues like frequency of updates, regular distribution of TMs, as well as backup and archiving need to be considered.
  • Who owns the translation memory? The agreement between you and your vendor needs to clearly stipulate this.
  • How confidential is your TM? Some translation vendors and individual linguists re-use (or even share) databases. Depending on the confidentiality of your translation projects, state your expectations as part of a contract or nondisclosure agreement.
  • Be sure that your TM system supports the TMX format for exchanging TM data between competing systems. Without this support, it could be difficult and expensive to switch translation vendors. (Visit for more information.)

A few things to remember

For every company that successfully employs translation- memory technology, there is one for whom the experiment has ended in disappointment and lost opportunities.

To make translation memory work, be sure to:

  • carefully review and, where necessary, redesign your translation processes;
  • perform a detailed Return on Investment analysis, taking into account “hidden costs”;
  • involve all affected parties, including IS, your translation supplier, and in-country affiliates;
  • develop a long-term strategy for maintaining, protecting, and leveraging your TM assets.

As with many new technologies, translation memory offers the opportunity for significant time and money savings. Just be sure not to rush into it blindly.