What’s not to love about translation memory (TM): cost savings, productivity increases, unified brand presence… Yet, our hero is not infallible. A TM’s value can and will degrade over time, irrespective of how well you may be maintaining it. This is not a doomsday scenario, though, and you are not required to go TM-free. In some cases, TM value degradation is normal, even expected.
It’s important to be aware of the various reasons TMs degrade and understand that they, too, have a shelf life, beyond which they need to be phased out.
1. Evolution of language
Translation memory is an asset, and like all assets, it undergoes depreciation. How fast the rate of depreciation will be depends on which industry you are in and even the language. If there are many innovations happening in your industry, they will spawn new sets of words. And while change is common to all languages, the rate at which they change will not be the same. The pace will depend on how much information the language exchanges with other languages and cultures, its exposure to technology, and other factors. All of these affect your terminology and, in turn, the translation memory.
2. Changes in product line
New products or services may be introduced and old ones discontinued. While the content for new products may have some overlap with the old, there may also be significant divergences. If the overlap is not sizeable, it may be a good idea to start a new TM for the new products.
3. Changes in target demographic
If your company was previously targeting a younger demographic, you may have adopted a contemporary and casual style. This may change when you decide to focus on a different age group that may prefer a more sophisticated and formal style.
4. Terminology and formatting inconsistencies
Working with different translators over a period of time will result in different translations for the same segment. Internal disagreements on terminology too can affect TM accuracy. Do all the departments of your company use the same terms when referring to the product or service? If not, the impact on the TM is obvious.
Grammatical and formatting errors that can creep in also lower TM value. Simple things such as inconsistent capitalization can wreak havoc on segment matches.
5. Neglecting TM hygiene
A translation memory is only as good as the love you give it (read: rigorous TM maintenance). If you have been dumping every single project in the last five years into a massive TM, and there’s a little bit of error each time, these things tend to compound.
Do not indiscriminately mix content types, locales, and content meant for different types of users. By doing so, you risk losing context, and without context, the translated strings mean next to nothing.
While the last two causes of TM degradation can be prevented largely by (1) creating a glossary and ensuring adherence and (2) adopting practices for TM segregation and hygiene, the first three are unavoidable in most cases. So, generally speaking, the older a TM gets, the more you need to penalize it. After a point of time, starting from scratch is usually the better approach than trying to clean and update a TM.