How many CAT tools should you need? Making the right choice in a market with an overload of translation software

  • Greater than 7 minutes, my friend!

    On my computer I have an incredible amount of translation software installed. There are Trados Studio (including 2017 for beta-testing purposes), MemoQ (different releases, which can be installed alongside each other), Memsource Editor (lightweight but powerful), Across (too heavy to work with on a regular basis), Transit NXT (required by a client but never used), Wordfast (license expired), Fluency (won in a contest but never used) and Idiom WorldServer (idle as I use MemoQ to translate these kind of files) to name a few. As a technology fan always eager to learn new things, I think I have many more CAT tools than the average translator. That raises a question: How many CAT tools should you need?

    The expansion of the CAT family

    I suppose there might have been a time during which things were easy for translators. First, there were no CAT tools whatsoever (although I don’t suppose that was easy either), and then they evolved one by one. Now that CAT tools have matured, they have given rise to a new and, in some respects, problematic trend – a continuous expansion of the CAT family with new young CATs in as many sizes and shapes as any other family: tiny tools, lightweight tools, smart tools, advanced tools and even headstrong tools. In the introduction to this article a couple of names were mentioned, but they can be extended to many more. How about POEdit, Swordfish, Deja Vu, Alchemy, Translation Workspace, SDLX, CaféTran, OmegaT and Leaf? They’re all on my computer too – not because I prefer them but because I need them sometimes. Or because clients required me to install some particular tool (often for free) and never came back to grant me a job using it.
    And then there is a whole new branch of the family: a somewhat fluffier looking one with a strong core. It’s the cloud offshoots with names like Smartling, XTM, Transifex, Crowdin, Wordbee, Lilt, SmartCat and Zingbee (not yet introduced). These tools often offer the same functionality as the ancient CATs but with the power of cloud computing, the advantages of rolling out new features and functionalities quickly, and the extensive compatibility old (but competing) CAT tools don’t and won’t always offer.

    Distribution of CAT tools owned

    * Read the disclaimer about these statistics at the bottom of this article.

    How CAT tools are growing closer together

    In short, there’s a great choice when it comes to CAT tools. In this article there are 25 members of the extensive family named and a few more can easily be added. They all have their unique features, but what they have in common is that they aim to improve the work life and workflow of translators. Back in 2009, I started out as a translator without any CAT tools, spending time with copying and pasting repetitions and formatting the translated text according to the source the client sent me. Thanks to CAT tools that is no longer necessary. Whatever filetype you might need to translate, you can simply import the source document, add a translation memory and benefit from improved productivity, efficiency and making more money at the same time.

    However, that’s where the confusion pops in. Nowadays there is no CAT tool that can’t handle complex PDF files, native app string packages or even Adobe InDesign documents. So what are their differences? And why should one choose a single CAT tool above another? Or why should you even buy and download a second CAT tool? With the rise of cloud-based translation environments, why shouldn’t you leave all those RAM-consuming legacy translation suites behind and choose a free cloud solution?

    Even after years of intensive use of CAT tools I cannot answer these questions easily. Every single CAT tool is developed simply because developers – whatever their origin, be it a smart entrepreneur or a revolutionary mind from within the translation industry – see room for improvement, gaining some market share and making a profit with their software. Or, if they are somewhat less entrepreneurial and more romantic, to introduce groundbreaking new technologies to translators in order to improve their lives.
    In order to survive in such a competitive market, these developers need to follow their competition carefully making sure they are at least one step ahead or, in the worst case, one step behind at introducing the features their competitors released some months earlier. No matter their intentions and technologies, companies introduce (in varying order) support for new file types, drag and drop, new machine translation technologies, hybrids approaching translation memory management and so on. What MemoQ introduced a year ago, Trados Studio will roll out this month while Lilt already added it from the beginning. In the meantime, SmartCat added it as well and it won’t take long before it is introduced in Wordfast as well.

    Frequency vs. preference of CAT tools

    * Read the disclaimer about these statistics at the bottom of this article.

    Some advantages and disadvantages of a great choice

    That is exactly the biggest disadvantage of today’s overload of CAT tools: they are similar in so many respects that they simply do not stand out anymore, causing stressful choices for translators. This is precisely the second disadvantage. In order to make the right choice (buying a CAT tool often involves a initial investment of some hundreds of euros and regular smaller license costs afterwards), translators need to find out what they need and how they can start using their ‘process and efficiency improvement tools’.
    On the other hand, these tools all offer their own advantages to many different types of translators. Translators who always translate the same kind of documents can stick to a simple cloud-based tool, those who translate a multitude of different file types can use Trados/MemoQ, those who prefer ease of use and dislike a steep learning curve choose CaféTran (I must admit that I was unable to comprehend it within an hour) and those who can’t make a choice simply don’t use one. (According to a survey one of my clients held last year 27 out of 161 respondents didn’t use a CAT tool.) And because there are so many documents, processing needs, technological requirements and different types of users, there will always be a solution that fits a particular translator best.

    Cloud-based CAT tools have their own particular considerations. The main advantage of these tools above any other legacy CAT tool is that they are updated every now and then (SmartCat is publishing a new update in each newsletter), so they can respond to emerging threats and technological developments much quicker than any computer-based CAT tool. At the same time they can be used almost everywhere there is internet access, including smartphones and tablets, while for traditional CAT software you need at least a laptop (and, in the case of Trados, even a second license).
    On the other hand, the cloud can prove to be dangerous for sensitive client information while privacy considerations also come into play. Using a CAT tool for free CAN have negative consequences as to the safety of information.

    General opinion about CAT tools

    * Read the disclaimer about these statistics at the bottom of this article.

    My approach to buying CAT tools

    Back to the introduction of this blog: how did I arrive at so many CAT tools on my computer (not to mention those cloud-based tools that I use regularly via my internet browser)? It all started back in 2009 when a client required me to do a job in a CAT tool (I had never touched one). I told him I was interested, but also asked whether it was possible to receive a discount. The client, an agency, asked SDL for a discount on Trados Studio 2009 and I bought the software with some €100 off – still paying €500 or so, my biggest investment in software until then. When a couple of months later a client asked me to use MemoQ I waited for the group buying and ordered the software for €430. I used both CAT tools on a regular basis but when, a year later, a client asked me to use Wordfast, I agreed but on the condition that I should receive regular jobs for it. Thus I bought Wordfast for some
    €300, with a ROI of less than a month. That has been my approach ever since: I am open to using new CAT tools but only if I suppose that they will pay off in the not-so-far-away future and for one or more clients.
    However, whatever CAT tool I buy, I make sure they fully support my requirements regarding project management and being ‘boss’ over my own intellectual property. That is exactly why I do not like Smartling or XTM that much: I simply cannot download my translations, which are handed over to the client and are fully unattainable for me once I have finished a project (for Memsource I found a workaround fortunately).

    CAT tools owned but not used

    * Read the disclaimer about these statistics at the bottom of this article.

    How many CAT tools should you use?

    Looking back, one might wonder whether there should have been the way back at the time. When it comes to file compatibility, Trados and in particular MemoQ support a number of competitive file types that can even be tweaked with some hacks and extensions to support ‘disabled’ file types. If translators ask me what to do and which CAT tool to buy I advise them to start with one of what seem to be the biggest players in the market: Trados and MemoQ. Both support the most file types of whatever CAT tool; under the pressure of new cloud technologies they are developing a hybrid approach in which the cloud is gaining ground. But if you want to go cheap, it is much more affordable to try a free tool first. If it works – great – you can always choose whether to buy it or to go for an alternative.

    * Note about the statistics presented in this article
    These statistics are derived from a survey a translation agency held in 2015 among translators. There were 331 invitations sent, out of which 161 respondents participated (48,64%). 83% of them reported to use a CAT tool; 17% didn’t use one. These statistics are shown here purely to give a general impression of the use of CAT tools among translators for a certain agency.


    Pieter Beens

    About Pieter Beens

    Freelance translator English-Dutch. Works for high-profile clients worldwide. Professional. Punctual. Passionate.

    12 thoughts on “How many CAT tools should you need?

    1. Great post, Pieter! As a rule of thumb I recommend sticking to the one that meets your needs and I think this is what most translators do (because learning new technology could be a bit of a drag especially when the onboarding process, the UI and the UX are less than superb).

      But, of course, you should at least familiarize yourself with all the available tools when you have free time (that way you’l never miss the next big thing) 🙂 And who knows, maybe that new tool that you try will replace your existing tool and improve your productivity. When it comes to tools its all about experimenting and understanding what tool serves your needs better.

    2. P.S.: I also think that cloud is the future and we’ll all gradually move to it sooner or later. Compatibility, speed and ease of use (and superior customer support/better feedback collection from users) will be decisive factors that will affect future development, imho.

    3. I’m still pretty amazed that SDL Trados offers no OS X compliant software, although it HAS forced me to seek out much more new, still developing software (like cloud based programs, Swordfish, etc.).

      1. Seriously? Wow, I didn’t know that, that’s very odd, but maybe their current client base is on Windows and they’re happy with that? Strange decisssion though. I wonder what they say about it?

        1. They say, “SDL Trados Software is officially supported on Windows operating systems only.” As if I didn’t know that. I already have the dubious pleasure of working via a virtual machine ’cause some clients don’t believe in OmegaT)))
          I think SDL’s never going to make a Mac version. Sad, isn’t it?

          1. Wow, that’s pretty sad, on the other hand it can motivate the competition to create a solution that works for Mac users. Maybe this will motivate SDL to consider a Mac version.

            1. Sad and frustrating. There are solutions for Mac, like CafeTran. But many clients want Trados only. Think it’s possible to work all projects on another CAT tool without the client knowing? I never thought of that before…

    4. Wow, Pieter, great summary. I have a few software on my computer myself, because clients ask me to work on them, and I do download whatever the client wants. But to be honest, all of them boil down to the same thing and sometimes it’s frustrating to have your TMs scattered all over your CAT tools, making it impossible to even remember which one will actually be helpful for your current translation project.

      1. I normally try to work in a single tool and export my memories into TMX at the end of the project. That way, if I ever have to work in another tool, I can always bring my memories along (they’re not always helpful, but still) 🙂

        1. That’s an approach I try to follow as well but it is such a hassle. I am still waiting for some bright mind who can develop a tool to use one single TM format with help of a plugin in both MemoQ and Trados (the two tools I use most). I have a generic TM and some specialization TMs as well client TMs but I try to keep the number as low as possible to prevent the necessary management work.
          However, I think that with the rise of machine translation TM management becomes more important than ever.

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