I have heard people say OmegaT is geared toward “geeks.” Is OmegaT really more difficult to master than other CAT tools?
On the contrary, I think OmegaT is one of the simplest tools. It takes no more than five minutes to get the general idea and start working productively. What I think can give this impression is not the complexity of OmegaT, but the complexity of today’s computers, which a lot of people do not master. I see that clearly when doing in-person training: people struggle to do something as simple as copying a file into the source folder of a project. Since OmegaT use relies largely on operating system features (such as copying and moving files around), it may appear complex to some. In reality, OmegaT is a simple application.
Your personal discipline and consistency are key to success of OmegaT as an ongoing project. How does one develop such qualities?
I wish my personal discipline were that good. However, I think my 15 years of experience in packaged professional software play a key role here. In packaged software, you do not develop disposable things; you will have to live with your choices, sometimes for many years, so you’d better make good choices. As a former database designer, I am also very sensitive to compatibility with previous versions. When we break it (rarely), we very carefully weigh the benefits.
What are your main wishes for the OmegaT project? Is it more funding from users, a larger team of contributing developers, or something else?
We’re not a web browser or an ERP, so we’re not likely to attract hundreds of contributors. (If we did, we would need one or two people full time to handle their contributions.) More funding is always appreciated, but having more users, if possible involved users, is more important. The rest comes along with that, including making OmegaT even more professional. I’m not speaking only of the program, but of the whole ecosystem. Do not misunderstand me: behaving professionally and targeting professionals doesn’t have to kill the free spirit that I love in OmegaT. On the contrary, the more resources we have, the more we can foster free initiatives.
What is your greatest source of motivation to continue your pro-bono work? Grateful users, donations, number of downloads, seeing OmegaT evolve?
The biggest drive is selfishness: having a tool as great as possible (that would put it under the “seeing OmegaT evolve” category). The rest is of course deeply appreciated. There’s one thing you didn’t mention, and that’s recognition for OmegaT in the CAT tool software industry.
What is your general perspective on commercial software vs. free and open-source software? As an open-source tool developer, many would expect you to be an ardent supporter of free software, e.g., working only under Linux, using LibreOffice faithfully, and so on. Is that true?
I generally like and approve free software usage. I will probably disappoint some, but I work mainly under Windows (I do have a few Linux environments under VirtualBox), and I use MS Office more often than LibreOffice. I use Windows partly because I started in localization, where you have to have a real Windows environment to test the applications you localize. As for MS Office, I tend to deliver translations in the format I received, and with LibreOffice I cannot ensure that there won’t be formatting differences.
After CAT tools were invented many years ago, there has been little change in how translators work. Is there room for another ground-breaking technology that will bring major change, as CAT tools did once?
I don’t think there will be one.
There was one (an old one), and it’s machine translation. In itself, producing sentences that you edit the best you can, it may not have much use if you are trying to do quality translation, but it can be very useful at the sub-segment level, for instance to create automated glossaries. That’s where some commercial CAT tools are more advanced than OmegaT.
But that’s not really ground-breaking: in the end, you have to fully understand the source text, transform it mentally using your knowledge of the source and the target languages and cultures, and write it as something that a native writer could have written to express the same thing as the source text. It’s hard to see how you could do effective translation much differently. When you think about it, CAT tools were not really ground-breaking technology either.
Some people are all for dictation technologies, but I’m a writer and a fast typer.
A common complaint about other CAT tools, such as Trados, is that they are unstable and prone to bugs. With much fewer resources available, how is it possible for OmegaT to be so stable and bug-free?
There are plenty of reasons.
The first is that OmegaT is developed and tested by the people using it. That means that, a few minutes after something is developed “officially” (i.e., is committed to the Subversion repository), one translator may already be using it in production. If it breaks something or if it doesn’t work, we usually know it very soon.
A second reason is that what we want is software that works—not something that works if the wind is blowing from the south, etc., but something that always works. It takes conscious decisions to make software like that. A lot of companies do not have that mindset. They want to do fancy things, there’s market pressure (we don’t have any), there are assumptions about the kind of operating system and software environment the translator is using, etc. OmegaT works on nearly all operating systems (there’s a world beyond Windows, Linux, and Mac!), and we are lucky enough to have users translating to and from most languages, including “minor” ones such as Uighur. Our user base is very diverse, because OmegaT, as free software, appeals to very different translators. For these reasons, we make few assumptions, and try to have “tolerant” code.
Being open-source helps, too. In proprietary software, you can get along with ugly code as long as your boss doesn’t see it. It’s not possible with OmegaT, because everything is visible, so any silly code will eventually be found and corrected.
What are the main roadblocks to wider adoption of OmegaT?
From a functional point of view, we are removing one by one the objections of those who say that OmegaT cannot be used professionally. I have heard them all: no sentence segmentation, no spell checking, no multiple translations, requirement to create a script to launch OmegaT, etc. These complaints are simply untrue.
Wrong assumptions about professional behavior: for a lot of translators, being a professional implies investing in the tools of the trade, the more expensive the better. A free (beer) tool cannot be taken seriously by them. Things are changing slowly, thanks to Firefox, but thanks also to specific actions aimed at professional translators (presentations in translator associations, webinars, in-person training) and agencies and companies (professional support, sponsored development).
Agencies imposing their tools: With a lot of agencies, you don’t really have a choice of the tools you use. OmegaT provides some compatibility with proprietary tools, but there’s a limit to what you can do.
Lack of confidence from translators in managing their own machine: In a way, it’s easier to learn a dozen wizards and procedures by heart than to understand how to copy a file on your computer from one point to another.
When you give seminars about OmegaT, what are the main age groups of your listeners? Are there any people other than translators among them?
Most of the seminars I have given were to translators. I think the age range reflected the profession: young college graduates to 40-something experienced professionals to old-timers. I haven’t noticed any specific pattern, which means OmegaT seems to appeal to all ages. I do not notice more interest from younger people. The only exception is the seminar I did at Dublin universities, where they were all PhD students with the related age range.
When I’ve done presentations to non-translators, most didn’t really get that interested, once they understood that OmegaT would not translate for them.
What was the best experience associated with the OmegaT project for you?
It’s hard to pick only one thing. Continuing with the “double hat” (translator and programmer), I’ll mention two.
As a translator, in the first big project I handled with OmegaT (about 100,000 words), I discovered one day that I had translated 14,000 words without effort. Of course, that was thanks to repetitions. But, for someone who was previously skeptical about CAT tools (I have a very good memory, I can copy/paste if needed, etc.), this was an eye opener (especially as it was a format you cannot manage in a word processor). I found again what attracted me to computers initially: they would work for you.
As OmegaT’s development manager, the best experience was going to Dublin, both to do a seminar for the universities and to meet welocalize.
This is the end of the interview.
Didier’s pro-bono work and admirable personal qualities, such as discipline and consistency, make him a role model for translators and software developers alike. His hard work and smart decisions made OmegaT the great translation memory program it is today. Thank you very much for your continued contribution to the translation community and sharing your insights today, Didier!
For another interview with a thought leader in the translation industry, check out the post called “Corinne McKay: “What happens when the higher-paying work comes back and you’re already busy?”