CAT tools, i.e. computer-aided translation tools or computer-assisted translation tools, are software applications that assist in translating content by enhancing the productivity and accuracy of professional human translators.
While both machine translation and CAT tools use software to produce translated content, they are different technologies that serve different purposes.
With machine translation, content is automatically translated solely by a machine, where the final machine output is often far from perfect and a human, usually a post-editor, might “assist” the machine to improve the accuracy and produce the final translation.
With computer-aided translation, a.k.a. machine-aided human translation, as opposed to human-aided machine translation (MT), translations are performed by human translators with the assistance of software that helps to automate some aspects of the translator’s work.
CAT tools are software applications that bring together all the technology available to facilitate the work of human translators.
The history of machine translation started back in 1947. Soon, the initial enthusiasm that machines could replace human translators died out and a new approach was adopted where the machines facilitated the work of human translators rather than doing the translation automatically.
One of the first original sources to report on the development of machine-aided human translation tools was the 1966 report of the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee (ALPAC), which referred to two systems – a term-specific glossary used by the Translation Agency of the German Federal Air Force, and a terminology database used by the European Coal and Steel Community.
In the late 1970s, attempts to build commercial terminology databases and translation memories were made, and the first CAT tools were developed by the US company Alpnet in the mid-1980s, collectively called TSS, for Translation Support System. For example, AutoTerm allowed the computer to assist the translator in terminology management from one source language into any target language that can be represented by the Roman alphabet. However, the high cost of the system made it affordable only to large companies such as IBM, one of the first purchasers.
Inspired by TSS, the Dutch company INK developed the TextTools system, a terminology management support system offering word processing with facilities for compiling and maintaining bilingual dictionaries and automatically analysing source text for terms.
In 1984, a company was established to become the official dealer of INK’s systems in Germany; and in 1987 to develop its own package, the first split-screen translation editor (one half for the source text, and the other for the target text). And that particular company, SDL Trados, is today’s CAT tool market leader, with the brand name Trados becoming synonymous with CAT tools.
In the 1990s, the first cloud-based CAT applications were developed and nowadays, there is a large selection of CAT tools available on the market, from complex desktop solutions to rudimentary cloud tools.