Office Tech

Brain Extension

Most translators I know have little interest in technology and often prefer to avoid their computers. Translators typically come from a liberal arts background in the United States, having studying language and literature in college, usually after three or more years of their second language in high school. Similarly, in other countries where students are often tracked by interest and ability as early as junior high school, translators usually come from a language arts background, with little science or math in their education.

So there is a latent reluctance if not an outright resistance to making the most of that modern extension of the human brain: the computer. Advances in operating systems and software application interfaces, plug-and-play compatibility for hardware, and improvements in input mechanisms such as voice-input software make computer use easier than ever, and create opportunities to do more with less effort.

A computer should make your life easier by letting you focus on what you as a human being are good at and taking over for you what you would just not handle well. Humans still make much better translators than computer do, and computers handle storage, formatting, and structuring of documents better than people. So look at your computer as an opportunity to improve your work. Take the time to explore its potential. Just because you were told you were good at language, and by extension not good at math or science, doesn’t mean you can’t get a lot out of a computer. Choosing the right system still requires some knowledge, and that’s where the rest of this article comes in.

The Computer

The first rule of choosing a computer is:  Software determines hardware. Buy the computer that will run the software you need. So you have to figure out what software you will be using, and only then can you decide what computer to purchase. You’ll spend considerably less time and money making computer decisions if you approach them this way.

You also have to consider what you’ll be doing with your computer in the next year or two. Put another way: it’s better to spend a little more now than have to buy something completely new in six or twelve months. Remember that translators have to maintain their systems and upgrade constantly in order to produce the file formats being used by businesses around the country and to take advantage of any time-saving technologies (if you don’t, your competition will; and you can’t survive if you are less efficient than your competition).

As a translator you will be creating and manipulating documents in a word processor, often with the assistance of Machine Assisted Translation software. Virtually every translation agency and company in the United States uses Microsoft Word, and most want their translators to use Trados for MAT. Since Trados only runs under Microsoft Windows, your choice for your computer is obvious: buy a PC that runs the latest version of Windows.

I realize that Apple makes many fine systems, and that Linux machines are very useful as well. I've had about a dozen Macs in the past 15 years, and have had Linux running on a Sony Viao. The Mac OS is certainly more stable, streamlined, and secure than Windows, though Microsoft is steadily gaining ground. And Linux is now easier to install and run than ever, with excellent documentation and applications available. All that said, the software you need as a translator simply isn’t available for these platforms. MAT software is still written, with a couple of exceptions, for Windows only. Good voice-input software is only available under Windows. So regardless of your feelings about Microsoft, Bill Gates, or Windows, you are going to have to use those systems.

Second rule of choosing a computer: Keep it simple. Buy your system from a major manufacturer that produces a good package deal and that will be around in one, two, or five years to provide the technical support and service you need. Unless you are quite competent with hardware configurations and software installation and maintenance (in which case you don't need my suggestions for purchasing a computer), stick to the major players in the industry: Dell, Gateway, or Hewlett Packard.

Nowadays computer systems come with respectable monitors, as well as a good keyboard and mouse. In the past you had to compare and purchase these items carefully, but you can now select a system without worrying about these devices. A computer is now a commodity product, as Dell has proven with its business model and commercial success, which means you simply select a system with the specifications you need and buy it.

What specifications do you need? As of spring, 2005, you should get a Pentium 4 machine with at least 256 MB of RAM (memory), a 40 GB hard disk, and a CD/DVD burner. Your system will come with a fax/modem, speakers, keyboard and mouse, and a monitor. I suggest you buy a larger monitor if possible. You will look at it every day for hours, and will have multiple windows open as you work on a document, search the Web for terminology, and check email.

Finally, laptops. A laptop may seem convenient, and certainly is if you are interpreting as well as translating and want to take your work with you, or like to do research in the library. However, you pay more for the same performance, because in the computer industry smaller means greater expense. Also, screen size is inevitably smaller, and the keyboard can be cramped. Finally, it is much easier to service or upgrade a desktop machine than a laptop. I’d therefore urge you to start with a desktop machine, and if your business requires one, then get a laptop.

There is never a good or bad time to buy a computer. No matter how hard you try, a faster, more powerful machine will be available within months. I suggest you purchase a solid mid-range machine that has been on the market for a couple of months. This avoids the often initially high price of some machines and the occasional bug that exists in new equipment. Stick to mainstream vendors so that you can be confident that you’ll have support for your equipment even a few years into the future, and to make selling the equipment, should you choose to do so, easier when the time comes to upgrade.


The principal piece of software you need is a word processor. Most clients expect their freelance translators to have Microsoft Word, though of course some translators use WordPerfect or the word processor in a Works package to produce compatible output. Since Trados and other MAT packages principally or exclusively work with Microsoft Word, more and more translators find they have to have it.

Although most documents they are translated arrive in Word.doc format, some translations are done in Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint, or other packages. Depending on your clients, you may find it necessary to have Microsoft Office. There are of course other office suite packages, such as WordStar from Sun Microsystems, but for reasons of compatibility, Microsoft Office is the one most translators have. Although expensive if bought separately, you can save yourself a fair amount of money by buying it when you buy your computer. Most computer manufacturers will give you a significant discount at time of purchase.

A database or personal information manager (PIM) is another valuable tool for a translator. You have to manage not only your terminology and glossaries, but also your clients and business contacts. The database can, if you put in the time, take care of all of these needs, where as a PIM package will only handle business contacts and clients. In addition, a database can also handle accounting and finance for you, or you can purchase a dedicated package such as QuickBooks, Microsoft Money, or MYOB. Taxes are best handled by dedicated software such as TurboTax or TaxCut. I’ve been using such software without a problem since 1993 and have been very pleased with it.

Machine Assisted Translation (MAT) software is all but essential for most freelance translators today. Trados dominates the market, though Deja Vu and Catalyst offer strong products as well. Let your clients determine your needs; if no one wants you to use the software, then do not bother with the expense. If, however, the majority of your clients want it, and they probably will, then you will have to have it and learn to use it.

Voice input software now works well for business use. I’ve been using DragonSystem’s Naturally Speaking Preferred from ScanSoft since 1999 and version 4. The current version is 8; it is quite accurate with straight-forward text. I can input over 1000 words per hour (which is far more than I can translate per hour) with perhaps one correction every other sentence or so. Bear in mind that if you plan to run voice-input software, you’ll need a very fast computer stuffed with RAM. Unfortunately for Macintosh users, the choices for voice input are limited and poor. Neither IBM’s ViaVoice nor iListen from MacSpeech do particularly well, not, that is, good enough for professional purposes, in my view..

Games have a number of legitimate and useful purposes for a translator. One, games are a great way to break up the work day, to relax and have fun for a little while in your office. You are alone there, and may find that a quick distraction or pressure release is useful. Two, games are a great way to test a computer, new or used. Nothing taxes a computer system like a flight simulator, 3D shooter, or other visually impressive game (Minesweeper and Solitaire don’t count here). You could spend days using Word before detecting a problem with your hard disk, sound card, or CD-ROM drive; with a game, it’d take all of ten minutes. Last, games are a vital part of the translation profession. Nintendo and Microsoft, among others, routinely hire translators to work on their consoles and games. Many freelance translators have worked on game manuals or screen content. Moreover, to no small degree games have driven the rise in computer capacity during the past decade. So why not be ready to make money? Play some games from time to time so that you are familiar with the language and content of a potentially very lucrative market.

Finally, a few general rules about buying software. One, don’t rely exclusively on the reviews you read in magazines. They are written by underpaid, overworked computer geeks who are given five software applications and asked to figure them out, and then evaluate them and write an article in one week. Instead, use reviews to find out what’s out there and how much it costs. Then talk to people who use the software. Try out the software in a store. And when you buy it, do so from a place which has a good exchange policy or money-back guarantee (unless you know you want the package). After a week of using the software, if you don’t like it, return it and get something else.

Two: don’t buy the biggest, most expensive, most powerful, feature-laden package available. Instead, find some modest package and get started with that. You’ll save time, money and frustration. When you are ready, you can buy, or for a fraction of the cost trade up to, the more powerful package. Remember, you’ll be buying software regularly over the years, upgrading your existing packages, and constantly learning how to do new and better things.

Three: read about the software you use. Your library will have dozens of books on the major operating systems and common business and productivity software packages. Spend some time browsing these books, trying out the techniques, and practicing until you are comfortable with the package. These books often provide clearer, more concise explanations and examples than the manuals to come with your software, though of course you should read those, too.


A printer is essential for a translator, but a laser printer might not be. Inkjet printers are sufficient for many purposes nowadays, print quality and speed having improved substantially in the past few years. It however you do a great deal of printing or require very high-quality output, then a laser printer is still better. Either way, purchasing a printer is relatively easy nowadays. Check recent issues of PC Magazine, PC World, or online sources such as CNet for reviews and recommendations of current products.

A scanner is also useful. You can scan text or images into your computer, and from there fax it, e-mail it to someone, or incorporate it into something you are working on. I only occasionally use my scanner, but am very glad to have one. Some translators even use a scanner as the first step in taking a printed text and converting it to electronic format, the second step being optical character recognition using software like OmniPage. This can be useful if you want to work on all your translations in MAT software, regardless of the format you receive them in. Of course, this will only work reliably with languages written using the Roman alphabet. Although OCR exists for Japanese and other languages written in characters or scripts, is still expensive and not especially accurate. As with printers, read reviews and recommendations in order to pick the best scanner for you.

There are a host of other useful peripherals and secondary devices for computers. Over the years I have had various types of networks set up in my home, have used several different handheld computers, and have worked with different types of keywords and input devices. I cannot say that one has been critical to my daily work as a translator, so I will not go into any detail about them here. However, do take the time to explore the possibilities and try out anything you think will help you.

The Internet

E-mail, the Web, newsgroups and lists, file-sharing services, and file transfers all represent daily activities for translators online. Fortunately, what used to be difficult, arcane, and time-consuming online is now all but instantly achieved with a graphical user interface and a mouse. A good browser can handle most of your online needs: Web browsing, e-mail, file transfer, newsgroups. And browsers are free. So get a copy of every major browser out there, including Microsoft Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator, Firefox, and Opera. Each has its uses and its limitations, and your own style of Web use will determine which you prefer.

Translators absolutely must be online. You need an Internet connection, preferably a high-speed connection via DSL or cable modem. Files are too big to be handled efficiently through a dial-up connection. Also, the majority of clients now contact their translators via e-mail, so the ability to quickly check your e-mail several times an hour is important.

Because you must be online, you must protect yourself online. Install and maintain proper antivirus software, a firewall, and anti-spyware software. With such software, you get what you pay for, so you will be better off in the long-run actually paying for something rather than trying to get it for free. Microsoft’s recent move into Internet security software may eventually change this, but not yet.

Furthermore, create secure passwords or passphrases for all your online activity. As a translator, you know at least two languages, and have a memory that is above average. So you should be able to cook up a clever combination of letters and numbers for a password, or ingenious, long phrase for a passphrase. And, of course, never download or open e-mail or a file attachment from a source you do not recognize without first subjecting it to careful scrutiny. Prevention is the best cure for viruses and other electronic nasties.

Used Equipment

Bargains abound for used computer equipment. You can find them in newspapers, on college campuses, or through Ebay on the Web. However, be careful because when you buy something used you might inherit the previous owner’s problems.

When buying a new computer, make sure you tested thoroughly. Don’t let the seller simply do a demonstration for you. Sit down in front of it and work for fifteen or thirty minutes. You should run the following tests. Turn on and shut down the computer a few times, making sure that it boots properly. If the computer is a Mac, you should here a crisp middle C when it boots. If you hear any other noise, don’t buy the machine. Format some disks (floppies or CD-ROMs). Open and save files to the hard disk and a floppy disk, making sure that the save operation is successful. Copy files to and from a floppy disk. Check the keyboard carefully to make sure there are no dead or sticky keys. Check the monitor carefully to make sure the display is crisp and clear and that there are no dead pixels. Test the mouse, making sure that it tracks properly and responds to clicks. And, have the computer make some sounds, be it through a game or a regular program, to make sure that the sound functions are working normally.

Don’t buy used software unless you know it’s what you want and you get all the manuals, registration forms, and other documentation. You should have the person who is selling the software write a letter to the manufacturer informing them of the transfer of ownership, but some software companies won’t recognize this and refuse to support software purchased from a previous owner.

Whenever you buy something used, create an invoice and make sure you and the seller both get signed copies. The invoice should include your name and address, the seller’s name and address, the date, a description of the purchase and the price. You may also want to add a clause that states you can return the equipment within a certain number of days should it prove defective.

The Whole Is Greater Than Its Parts

So, you have all this advice about computer hardware, and you’re asking yourself, should I bother to take it to heart and use it? The answer is, of course, yes. The reason is that a computer system is more than the sum of its parts. It’s how you get work done. If the system lets you work fast and efficiently, helps you avoid problems and handle emergencies, and is comfortable, then work becomes easier.

Although a good computer system does not guarantee business success, most of the really successful freelancers (in any field) have good systems and take advantage of them. Learn as much as you can about your computer and the software on it. Take classes, study how-to books and guides, check out Web sites on specific software tools. You can even ask engineers or geeks for help. But never let a geek get a hold of your keyboard or mouse. The geek will work so quickly that you won’t learn anything. Force this geek to tell you what to do and let you actually do it. You will learn a lot more a lot faster that way, someday perhaps even joining the ranks of geekdom yourself.

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