Common Terms in the Translation Industry


This is what befell me a few years ago when a web design company set out to build my first-ever website. In next to no time, I found myself in a mind-boggling flurry of incomprehensible terms and concepts. I had to enquire and read my way diligently through a myriad of arcane words, phrases and abbreviations.

‘First, you need a domain name and a web hosting provider, Sir,’ a consultant of the company helpfully explained.

‘A domain name and a web hosting provider?’ I stammered ignorantly.

After she had clarified what she meant, I thought that should be a piece of cake. And I kept being of that opinion until she saw fit to initiate me into the secrets of DNS servers, SSL certificates, phishing, APIs, widgets, plugins, CSS, opcode cache, HTML, JS, minification and what not. As one might imagine, as a person whose educational and professional background does not have anything to do with web design and computer science, I felt rather frustrated, silly and disheartened. I wished I had friends who earned a living as web designers, so that they could give me a crash course in some basic terms and concepts in that area.

Just like web design, translation too is a field of study in its own right. It is also a very complex industry involving various processes, procedures, quality guidelines, teams of specialists and software programs that go by certain names. Therefore, it is no wonder I have seen many a client raise a perplexed eyebrow at the mention of 85% matches, fuzzy matches, segments or non-editable content.

Are you or your business planning to use the services of a translation agency for the first time? Have you been patronising a language service provider without making much sense of their jargon? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then you should find the present article quite handy. It aims to introduce you—in an understandable way—to some of the most commonly used terms translation companies use when communicating with their clients. So, let us get going and extricate you from the quagmire of unfamiliar or vaguely familiar translation terminology.

Source language

This is an easy one. The source language is the language we translate from. For example, if you have a document in German which needs to be translated into Swedish, then the source language is German.

Target language

I am confident you have already guessed this one. The target language is the language we translate into. In the example given above, Swedish is the target language as we translate into it. A translation project might have more than one target languages. For instance, you might have a text in German that needs to be translated into English, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch and Spanish. I have worked on translation projects with as many as 35 target languages.

Language pair

The source and target languages represent the language pair. Let us say a document has to be translated from Spanish into Italian. Then the language pair is Spanish–Italian. It is important to note that we specify the source language first and the target language is placed in second position.

Another key detail about language pairs is that, for the sake of brevity, more often than not, we indicate them by using specific language codes. The code for English is EN, the code for Finnish is FI, for Dutch it is NL, for Spanish– ES, for Italian–IT, etc. Therefore, if the source language is Spanish and the target language is Italian, chances are that the language pair will look like this: ES–IT. These are standard codes suggested by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and widely used in the translation industry. To get a clearer idea, you can check out the following link.


Suppose your business has released a brand new fancy product catalogue. You sell internationally, so you need to have your catalogue translated. Therefore, you place the order with a language service provider. This is where a project or a job starts.

In the translation industry, a project or a job may encompass a wide range of activities. Firstly, your language service provider may have to prepare the files for translation. This might involve converting them to a manageable file format and addressing a number of issues this may have caused. Then, the translation is placed with a suitable linguist or linguists. After they wrap it up, a proofreader is brought in to ensure the translation meets the highest possible linguistic standards. Once they are done, a final QA check follows. In order to make sure that the formatting is the same as that of the source documents, a desktop publishing job may be implemented. Depending on the type of service and end result that you seek, other activities may be necessary: transcription, subtitling, voiceover, testing, etc. It is no wonder then that the implementation of a project might involve a number of specialists: project managers and coordinators, translators, proofreaders, QA specialists, graphic designers and DTP specialists, localisation engineers, voiceover talents and so on.

Project/Job item

As explained above, a project is a string of activities. Each activity is what we call a project item or a job item. Examples of job items are translation, proofreading, QA, file preparation, DTP, subtitling, voiceover, etc. A project can contain just one item, for instance translation. It may be comprised of two items—say, translation and proofreading—or three items—translation, proofreading, and DTP. All sorts of combinations are possible here. So, to sum it up, job items make up a project or, to put it the other way around, a project is made up of discrete job items.

CAT tools

No, the term does not have anything to do with the fluffy feline animals that we keep as pets. In the language industry CAT is an acronym coming from computer-aided translation. Some also call it computer-assisted translation. Basically speaking, CAT tools are software programs that address various practical issues concerning the whole translation process. They are jam-packed with features which improve efficiency and quality, cut turnaround times and facilitate translators, proofreaders, and project managers. Some language service providers purchase ready-made CAT tools, while others invest resources in developing their own internal translation software.


A CAT tool automatically breaks down the text that needs to be translated into smaller, more manageable, and convenient segments. A segment roughly corresponds to a sentence, though not always. An example of a segment would be ‘John loves pizza’ but can also be ‘Canada’ when the latter is part of a list. This source segment is placed in a numbered box and to its right or just below it, depending on the CAT tool, there is another box where the linguist types the corresponding translation. Breaking down the source text into such smaller chunks makes it much easier and more convenient for linguists and project managers. The segment containing the source text is called a source segment and the segment containing the translation is called a target segment.

Here is what segments look like in a CAT tool. On the left, you can see the source segments—in this case, in Bulgarian—and on the right–the target segments in English.

Translation memory (TM)

A translation memory, also known as a TM, is a central feature of any CAT tool. As the name aptly suggests, a translation memory is a repository containing all previous translations of given source segments. Let us say, for instance, that the source segment ‘John loves pizza’ was translated into Bulgarian as ‘Джон обича пица‘ and that this translation has been recorded in our translation memory. In the future every time the segment ‘John loves pizza’ appears in the source text and the target language is Bulgarian, the translation memory is going to suggest the translation already recorded, i.e. ‘Джон обича пица‘. This is by far the most valuable asset of a CAT tool as it saves time, effort, and costs, and also significantly improves consistency.

Translation units

A translation unit is a source segment and its corresponding target segment as stored in the translation memory. A translation unit would be the source and target pair:

Source: John loves pizza.

Target: Джон обича пица.


Every time a linguist is translating a source segment, the CAT tool software being used performs an automatic lookup in the translation memory. If it finds out that exactly the same segment as the current one has been translated, we get an exact match. Exact matches are also known as 100% matches. Sometimes an exact match might appear in the same context—right after and right before the same sentence. In that case, we get a context match, also known as an ICE match, a 101% match or a guaranteed match. However, CAT tools are also capable of detecting translated segments which are similar rather than exact matches. Let us assume that the segment ‘John loves pizza’ has been translated and the current segment is ‘John loves spaghetti’. The latter is not exactly the same but still there are two identical elements. This is what we call a fuzzy match. Fuzzy matches are indicated in percentages depending on what proportion of the current source segment coincides with the one already translated. Thus, for example, one can see 99% matches, 85% matches and so on.

All this is extremely important both from a linguist’s and a client’s perspective. It means that segments are not translated from scratch and therefore the client is not charged the full rate per word.

However, there is a crucial principle here. It is what we call a fuzzy match threshold. Theoretically speaking, any match between 99% and 1% is a fuzzy match. The thing is that a 10% match or even a 60% match would not be very useful for the linguist as he/she will be better off if they translate them from scratch. So, there is a cut-off point below which one cannot find much useful content. This is what we call the fuzzy match threshold. The fuzzy match threshold is usually 70%-75% and anything below it is considered new words or no match. New words are always charged at full rate.


If the same source segment is present more than once in the current document, it is called a repetition. Let us assume that the segment ‘John loves pizza’ appears six times in the document, then it is a repetition. The linguist needs to translate it only once and the translation memory does the rest. It immediately supplies the remaining five target segments with the translation just typed in.


In translation, a glossary is a list of terms in a specific field or for a specific client. It contains particular terms in the source language and their corresponding translations in the target language. Glossaries vary significantly in their form and structure. Some are bilingual ­(containing only the source terms and their translation equivalents in just one target language). Others are made up of multiple columns for a number of target languages. For instance, I have seen glossaries for over 20 languages.

A glossary might also hold other useful information such as information about the part of speech of the specific term, a definition, an example sentence or even notes.

Ideally, glossaries are in Excel format, though project managers and linguists have seen glossaries in other much less convenient file types such as PDF or Word.

Using glossaries during translation is of utmost importance as they help your language service provider translate terminology quickly and consistently. Think of how confused a reader would be if the name of a certain button has been translated in several multiple ways in a user manual.

A bilingual glossary in Excel. The column on the left contains the source terms in English and the column on the right–their corresponding translations.


Unfortunately, most of the time Excel glossaries cannot be used with CAT tools due to file format incompatibility. CAT tool developers, however, have thought of a way around this hitch. Thanks to special applications and add-ons, an Excel glossary can be converted into a termbase. A termbase has the same content but is in a file format that enables the user to upload it to a project in a CAT tool. This is extremely useful as major CAT tools recognise terms from a termbase and when they detect them in the source text, they mark them, give you a translation suggestion and allow you to insert it quickly at the click of a button.


When a client needs a helping hand with a translation job, they contact a language service provider. The latter analyses the files and prepares a quote. A quote is a document by means of which a translation agency makes their offer to a client. It contains the key information about the project: word count, type of service, language pair, number and type of files, expected turnaround time, and overall cost to the client. When the quote is ready, the language service provider sends it to the client who then has to either approve or reject it. If the client approves the quote, they basically give the green light to the language service provider and the latter commences work on the project accordingly.

Translation management system (TMS)

As explained above, project management and coordination is key to the successful implementation of a translation order. It is a complex process which involves a number of activities, tasks, and participants. Examples of activities include receiving project requests, preparing quotes, accepting or rejecting them, creating projects and job items, searching for linguists, requesting their services and assigning them to a specific project, calculating profit margins, rates and discounts, transferring files, exchanging important information, etc. It is also a process in which three main parties interact with each other: the client, the translation agency and the freelance linguist. Therefore, software developers have created translation management systems. These are software solutions that facilitate all the participants in the translation process by organising tonnes of data, automating tasks that otherwise need to be performed manually, and cutting turnaround times. A translation management system enables language service providers to enter and store important information about their linguists and clients, to send and receive files, invoices and quotes, search for linguists according to preset criteria and much much more.

Non-editable content

Sometimes source documents contain images, charts, and diagrams with text on them. Unfortunately, this text is part of the image itself and cannot be processed, removed or changed with a standard text editor. Such text is known as non-editable content. Some clients would rather their language service provider left it as it is, whereas others prefer to have it translated. In order for non-editable content to be translated, however, a desktop publishing job will be necessary. This means that completion of the project will take more time and will cost more.


The present article was a quick primer on some of the most common terms and concepts used in communication between language service providers and their clients. So, next time you contact a translation agency you should be fully prepared to grapple with the fancy jargon and pull off the conversation like a well-informed and well-seasoned client of a translation agency.