CAT Calls: Searching for Translation Software

I’ve been translating on the side for some time, but have only recently decided to make this a steadier form of income. As part of that, I wanted to investigate some of the CAT tools currently on the market. Aside from tinkering with the open source offering OmegaT some years ago, until now I hadn’t tried any of the tools listed.

As with many software niches there are a lot of options in this market, and not many straightforward answers. It sometimes seems that the smaller the niche, the more choices there are. On my list to try out were SDL Trados Studio 2011, memoQ 2013, Wordfast Anywhere, OmegaT, Déjà Vu X2 Professional and Across Personal Edition 1I didn’t actually get to try out Across’ free software option, as it immediately complained that it couldn’t open my documents as I don’t own Microsoft Word, but rather use OpenOffice. Nevertheless most reviews suggest it is software to be avoided.. In this post I look at the market leader’s offering SDL Trados Studio 2011.

SDL Trados

So then Trados. A clear market leader, if there’s such a thing as a standard choice in this field, Trados is the one most people have heard of, and the one many jobs allegedly depend upon.

First impressions were not good. The firm’s start page looks like a typical mid-90s construction pageholder, apparently catering to four separate types of customer. Not that it particularly interests me, but Corporate Language Departments and Enterprise Customers are advised to visit their corporate website. Link not included. And Translation Agencies are directed to a special dedicated agency website, again, not directly linked, but in the top right there is a link, to this:

The resource you are looking for has been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable.

Amazing. Fortunately, as a newcomer I could be satisfied that my corner of their market is the only one they can be bothered actually catering to, and they send me to… the Translation Zone! I presume this is a deliberate cognate of the American term, since trying to sort out the different versions of the program seems like an exercise in applied madness. Aside from the fact that the basic program is called SDL Trados Studio 2011, this comes in all sorts of flavours: Starter, Freelance, Freelance Silver, Freelance Gold, Freelance Plus, Freelance + 2007, Freelance Plus + 2007, Starter Freelance Gold 2011 Plus 2007 Minus 2005… alright, so there is no Freelance Silver, but honestly, what are they selling? Do they even know? And there are even more editions once you get outside of the Freelance mode. One of the big selling points of their 2011 Studio package is that there is no need for the 2007 Suite (Suite? Studio? Bedsit in Winslow?), apparently because the compatibility issues which plagued earlier version changes doesn’t apply here, yet there are still two versions of the program being sold with the old version included. The Trados ecosystem seems to be the working definition of crippleware, with the Starter version in particular looking like just the rump of a tree, but for the price difference it’s also understandable.

Downloading a trial was no problem—as is often the case, it’s quicker to find a link to a downloadable file than to find a price—and I was soon able to install a 30-day trial. Although not before I had to unpack a compressed version of the installation file, with its net saving of around 0 bytes. The installation procedure was evidence enough of what a hydra-like beast Trados really is, with enough components being installed to make you dizzy, and various other prerequisite software like XML SDKs, Microsoft’s Visual C++ Redistributable, and a version of Java old enough to be a grandmother. Granted, the latest version of the program was released a year ago, but could they not at least include a Java version that doesn’t contain a few hundred security bugs? The demo also includes a version of SDL Passolo Essential 2011 SP6 for software localisation.

Starting up the program leads to the next bit of confusion. Apparently, despite having the program installed in English on a PC with English as the system language, the update announcement is displayed in German. Perhaps they want to test their userbase? Maybe that’s what the Passolo software is for, so you can localise the message yourself? A minor slip up perhaps, but that also doesn’t account for the fact that the patch, a service pack nonetheless, isn’t directly available. The program doesn’t automatically update itself, it doesn’t offer to download it for you, it doesn’t give you a link to download the file yourself. No, apparently any fool can download the full trial program, but only paying members can gain access to the hidden patches in their members’ lair.

However you swing it, once I got this far, the program itself did the job. The interface is a little goofy—like a poor imitation of the XP look, a decade after it went out of fashion—but generally getting down to work is straightforward with no major hiccoughs. I did, however, find it galling that Trados uses a proprietary standard for its localisation files, SDLXLIFF, despite so boldly proclaiming their love of standards as to post the same list in their FAQ twice (emphasis mine):

  • Faster project management setup and real-time quality assurance checks increase accuracy and save time SDL is committed to open standards.
  • Studio 2011 makes extensive use of industry standards which enable easier sharing of files, TMs and termbases between tools that also support XLIFF (a file format for translation), TMX (for translation memories) and now even TBX (for terminology databases)

It strikes me as particularly cynical on their part. I’m no programmer, perhaps there’s a valid failing in the XLIFF format that SDL felt it necessary to improve upon, but judging by the overall feel of the program, I’d doubt it. I only used the software for a couple of projects, but already had some headaches trying to import/export documents between SDL and another CAT tool (to the extent that the lovingly standardised SDLXLIFF files were unreadable, and a new translation had to be built in the other second client using the fortunately importable Translation Memory (in TMX format).

As this was one of the first CAT tools I tried out, it’s a little difficult to compare with the ones I used later, given as I was getting to grips with both Trados and CAT tools in general. Nevertheless one of the first largest disappointments I had was that in order to create a TermBase for Trados, the user needs to find the end of a second rainbow to be able to fork over another pot of gold for SDL MultiTerm 2011 (likewise available in crippled and non-crippled editions). Basically one of the key benefits of using a CAT tool in the first place is closed off to customers who’ve only paid €500 for their product.

Conclusion: It’s difficult to put my finger on it, but there’s something just not right with Trados. For the most part, the program does work, but for a market leader it feels incredibly rough around the edges. The whole look of the software seems turn-of-the-century; it feels lazy that the program doesn’t automatically come up to date (or update itself), and it’s rather saddening that they automatically install an antiquated version of Java with it. The fact that they claim to support standards but in fact obviously go about creating their own smacks of a group abusing their market position to keep their customers bound, and make up for the relative shoddiness of their program.

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1. I didn’t actually get to try out Across’ free software option, as it immediately complained that it couldn’t open my documents as I don’t own Microsoft Word, but rather use OpenOffice. Nevertheless most reviews suggest it is software to be avoided.

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