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  • Writer's pictureIan Mac Eochagáin

How a glossary saves a translator’s bacon

Any translator who’s serious about translation uses a few technical aids. The most important one is translation software. Several major ones exist, but my choice is Wordfast Pro 5, a desktop program that divides the source text into segments, with the source language (Finnish) on the left and the target language (English) on the right. The main benefit of using translation software is translation memories (TMs), records of all the text you’ve translated in both languages. I store individual translation memories by client.


What Wordfast looks like: the source text, in Finnish, is on the left, and the right-hand side is ready to be populated with the translation in English. Each numbered row is called a segment.

Wordfast translation software with right target-language column unpopulated

In addition to translation memories, translation software offers another valuable tool: glossaries. These are different to memories: whereas a single entry in a TM is usually a sentence long, a single entry in a glossary, called a “term” in Wordfast, is a word or phrase.

Glossaries save a translator’s bacon. They are easy to set up and build, and when complete provide a safety net against errors. For example, a legal document may contain hundreds of examples of the words “plaintiff” and “defendant”. When I am translating a document like this, I create a new glossary, then create some new terms. In this case, they would be “kantaja/plaintiff” and “vastaaja/defendant” (the first words in each pair are the Finnish for the English words).


Glossary term dialog box in Wordfast
Creating a glossary term

At any point during the translation, I can make Wordfast highlight all the terms. This is how that looks in the program:


If they are exact matches, I see them highlighted in green. If they are near matches, meaning they are off by a letter or two, I see them highlighted in yellow. This is not usually concerning; it typically means one of the words is in a slightly different form to that set in the glossary, such as “plaintiffs” instead of “plaintiff”. It can also mean the source-language form of the term is different to what was entered in the glossary: above, “kantajien” is the genitive plural of “kantaja” (“plaintiff”) in Finnish.


However, if I see a term highlighted in purple, I have to do something about it:

Wordfast translation software with glossary terms highlighted and one incorrect term highlihted in purple

This means the program has found no match for the source term in the target segment, often because I have accidentally mistranslated or failed to translate a word. The glossary tool’s coloured highlighting allows me to see what areas I need to pay attention to. If I’m in a rush, it can be surprisingly easy to write “plaintiff” when I mean “defendant”, as above, but thankfully there are technical aids for catching such slip-ups.


There are other words which this approach suits: buyer/seller, client/service provider and employer/employee are all frequent in contracts. It is crucial to get these basic terms right, and a glossary which highlights terms in colour is invaluable for ensuring nothing slips through the net.


Naturally, I don’t rely exclusively on technical aids. I always use the services of another native English-speaking translator who revises my texts before I finalize them, and I always check my translation against the original before sending it to the client. Sometimes, though, even two professionals can miss details, and that is where the machine can be a translator’s life buoy.

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