Dealing with Low-Quality Translation Memories

Working with translation agencies often involves projects with existing translation memories (TMs) created by a different translator or translators. For example, an agency decides to use your services, since the original translator is unavailable. The agency expects you to provide discounts for 100% and fuzzy matches. Because you can’t be sure of the quality of those existing translations, the best practice is to scan the TM before accepting the project, but this is not always possible or informative. More often than not, it is only after you have started translating that you find multiple errors in the TM. This post outlines the most common errors in the TMs and suggests recommendations on how to deal with them.

Most Common Errors

1. Mistranslations. This is the single most important type of translation error, and the existing translation memories are not free of it. Normally, a translator should, and is expected by the agency to, trust the existing TM. This, however, can create a conflict: you can notice an erroneous TM entry, but your basic assumption and often a direct instruction from the agency is that TM is correct. Such conflict is a serious time waster causing you to scratch your head each time you encounter a potential error: is it really an error or is there something that I don’t understand, but the original translator understood better through more experience with this project?

2. Inconsistency. Because translation companies often have to use different translators for the same client, this client’s TM tends to grow more and more inconsistent with time. Each new translator hopping on the bandwagon is more likely to make changes to the existing TM, rather than strictly follow it. The main reasons include: (a) failure to look up the existing translations in the TM, and (b) the assumption that they know better than the previous translators.

3. Poor, literal style. Based on my experience with editing English to Russian translations (and using outside of my work for that matter), I sadly conclude that a literal translation is today more like a given. The ability to make translation feel natural is the mark of a truly professional translator (perhaps, top 5-10% in our line of business). This means that any existing TM is very likely to have a certain amount of sloppy translations that are difficult to apprehend.


1. Be sure to understand that you are responsible for the translation you will provide based on the external TM. Sometimes, despite being paid for reviewing the TM matches, a translator may tend to skip them or ignore errors, assuming that the TM is correct, just because it should have been checked thoroughly in the course of the previous projects. This assumption can be extremely detrimental to the quality of your work and hence your image. In fact, the minute you insert a 100% match or adjust a fuzzy match in your current project, it becomes your very own translation. Any errors in the translation you deliver are your errors, even though they may come from the TM. It’s my recommendation to review and edit all matches following your general editing approach. Don’t trick yourself into thinking that correcting someone else’s errors is not your job or this memory should be correct anyway (despite what common sense may tell you), otherwise it wouldn’t have been provided to you. For instance, my approach is to correct obvious errors, in particular mistranslations or inconsistency, and minimize preferential changes.

2. When things get worse as you move through the project, stop and let the agency know immediately. Just as with the previous recommendation, don’t ignore the obvious: as long as you keep editing the sloppy TM matches, you perform unpaid work. As I said earlier, the basic assumption and the only valid reason for discounts is that the TM is correct, i.e. you are paid for reviewing the matches, not correcting errors. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have accepted the discounts. You don’t have to bear a loss by spending uncompensated time on correcting someone else’s blunders. I made this mistake too often myself thinking, okay, this is probably the last error, I will correct it, it won’t take long, but the TM kept throwing errors at me. You may also think that because you already accepted the project and confirmed the price, you are bound to complete it on the agreed terms and absorb the loss alone, because you should have known better. It’s important to understand that the erroneous TM is a hidden issue, which is too hard to discover in the process of considering and negotiating the project. You definitely have the right to contact the agency, explain the problem, and renegotiate the price or work out another win-win solution.

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