Going Rogue: Translating Professionally with a Free CAT Tool (Part 1)

Going Rogue: Translating Professionally with a Free CAT Tool (Part 1)

While typing the title of this post, the word “professionally” shortly followed by the word “free” made me feel a bit awkward. In most developed nations, where capitalism is a reigning economic reality, such a reference can be considered blasphemy. But since I was going rogue here, I was willing to explore this possibility and ask the million-word question: Can a professional freelance translator do the job using only free tools?

The Objective

Obviously, this is a quite nonspecific question and to be able to research the topic, and present the facts in a reasonable way, I needed to define some criteria that would narrow down the scope of this inquiry. Being the perfectionist I am, I set forth some very demanding prerequisites that would either prove or bust this whole free proposition thing. Thus, after some serious thinking, the bare minimum requirements that I came up with and believe a free CAT Tool must successfully meet were:

  1. It must be free (i.e. $000.00)
  2. It must be able to run on all three major Operating Systems (Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux)
  3. It must accept directly, or with minimum tinkering, bilingual files from major proprietary CAT Tools
  4. The translation process must be as seamless as using a proprietary tool, or close enough
  5. The resulting translated bilingual files must be identical to the ones a proprietary tool would produce and adhere to the client’s delivery specifications

At first sight, the above points seem quite challenging but anything less would hamper a professional translator’s workflow. And when dealing with actual, paid translation jobs, the last thing you want is for your tools to get in the way, or worse, not allow you to deliver in the way the client expects you to.

For this case, I conducted the experiment under a controlled environment: I acted as the client and the translator. This allowed me to assess the situation better and push the free CAT Tool scenario to its limits. Thanks to my translation project management experience and earlier freelance translation career, I was in a unique position to cover both sides effectively, allowing a clear, transparent approach to the process.

The Free CAT Tool

The first step in this endeavor was to locate the right free CAT Tool that would comply with all 5 requirements set in the previous section. After a quick research on Google, I shortlisted the following 3 free tools:

By applying an in-depth analysis to each of the above tools’ capabilities, I eliminated the first two and nominated Heartsome Translation Studio as the suitable free CAT Tool for our experiment. It should be stated here that the eliminated tools are quite capable software (and have the backing of the Open Source community), but for the niche purposes of my strictly defined test they didn’t cover all 5 of the set requirements.

On the other hand, Heartsome Translation Studio proved a perfect fit, covering all requirements and offering a familiar user interface and feature-set that matched those provided by other major proprietary CAT Tools like SDL Trados Studio, memoQ and Wordfast. That’s no coincidence since this CAT Tool was once proprietary too! Developed by a Hong Kong based company (now defunct) named Heartsome Technologies Ltd., this application was pitched against the big guys in an attempt to win a part of the translation tools market. Despite its features and multi-platform capabilities it struggled along, trailing behind the competition. This led the company into a financial turmoil that forced them to close shop. However, instead of sinking their software into oblivion they took a rather bold decision and open sourced the code, allowing it to be copied, modified and used freely by everyone. This offering to the open source community in general, and to translators in particular, is quite valuable, since it provides everyone with a commercial-grade software without the hefty price tag.

Before we proceed to the next section (which will be covered in Part 2), that deals with the actual process of translating with the chosen free CAT Tool, I’d like to mention 2 more free tools that were deemed necessary to complete this whole experiment:

The first one, Trados Studio Resource Converter, is a free multi-platform Java application that converts SDL Trados Studio translation memories (.sdltm) and terminology databases (.sdltb) into formats readable by all current CAT Tools (.tmx and .tbx files). It’s a very handy utility for anyone that doesn’t have access to an installation of SDL Trados Studio, and was needed during my tests when dealing directly with SDL Trados Studio project packages (.sdlppx). This tool is developed and provided for free by the nice folks at Van Nellen Translations (http://www.vannellen.com).

LibreOffice doesn’t need any introductions as I’m quite sure you’re familiar with it in one way or another. It’s a powerful free office suite and the best alternative to Microsoft Office. The main reason I needed this software was for handling the older (but still widely used) .doc, .xls and .ppt versions of MS Office files. Heartsome Translation Studio can’t deal with these formats directly (but handles the newer MS Office files .docx, .xlsx, .pptx just fine), so it uses as its backend process the LibreOffice file filters to convert them into readable content for our CAT Tool.

+++ End of Part 1 +++


In Part 2, we’ll kick-off the actual process of handling a translation project from a client. Specifically, we’ll see what steps are included in such a process, and delve into the first step which deals with the source file preparation.

Petro Dudi avatar
About Petro Dudi
Petro Dudi is an American expat residing the last two decades in Athens, Greece. His professional career revolves around the Translation & Localization Industry for more than 17 years, having translated or project managed numerous projects for tech giants such as Microsoft, IBM/Lotus, Adobe, Symantec, GE Energy, Caterpillar, Toshiba, LaCie, Canon, Sony, Nokia, Bosch, Siemens etc. Petro is also the author of "Translation 101: Starting Out As A Translator", and the creator of the "Translation101 Toolkit" software.
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