Bilingual Review Files: A Productivity Aid or a Waste of Time?

By Andrew Bell

Bilingual review files come in many shapes and sizes, but they all have one thing in common: they’re meant to facilitate the revision stage of a translation project.

As you can see in the example in Figure 1 below, the bilingual review file consists of several columns. One column is reserved for the source text (the original content in a given language), another for the translation (in my case, English), as well as other columns for comments, status, etc. The number of columns and their purpose all boils down to which computer-assisted translation (CAT) tool you use1, but the idea behind these files is fundamentally the same—to improve productivity and allow corrections to be implemented in the CAT tool working environment.

Figure 1: Bilingual review file from MemoQ

(Theoretical) Advantages

Presenting the translation in this manner is meant to increase productivity in the following ways:

One File, Two Languages: The huge advantage of a bilingual review file is that you have both the original text and its translation in the same user-friendly file. This means there’s no need to create a folder structure or be constantly flicking between target and source documents.

Segmentation: The text is segmented into digestible chunks (usually sentences) that are much easier to revise than big blocks of unfriendly text. However, the segmentation is dependent on how the text was segmented in the translation stage.

Not CAT Tool Dependent: This means that revisers and translators don’t have to work with the same CAT tools, or even with a CAT tool at all in the case of the reviser, to be able to work together. This is because the text can be revised directly in the bilingual review file.

Track Changes: Track changes can be used to show where the text has been amended, and this makes it easy for the translator or project manager to review the changes and either accept or reject them. Comments can also be added to the text without disrupting the layout of the document to add clarity to changes or provide additional information.

Implement Changes in the CAT Tool: Once the revision stage has been completed, the translator can upload the changes into their CAT tool in a single step. The fact that this is so easy and quick to do lets the translator update their translation memories and termbases for future reference with ease.

Practical Experience

When I started working as a freelance translator, my first assignment was actually a revision task, but to my surprise the task didn’t involve a bilingual review file. I was simply sent two separate documents: the source and target files. You can imagine my dismay. We have all this technology available to increase our productivity, yet it wasn’t being used. Alas, this wasn’t my call to make, and I decided to crack on with the task at hand.

I soon discovered from working with various clients that bilingual review files weren’t actually as common as I thought they would be. But I found this didn’t impede my productivity, but actually increased it! Now having carried out various revision tasks in this way, I’ve been able to reflect on why this is the case, and I’ve narrowed it down to one particular aspect: the top-down approach.

Top-Down Approach to Translation

When it comes to translation, there are two approaches: top-down or bottom-up. Top-down basically means you start working with the document as a whole and then progressively work with smaller elements within the document. The bottom-up approach is the exact opposite, where you work with a very specific element and progressively look at the bigger picture. To explain how this is helpful, I’ll give you some examples.

Formatting: Working with a target document rather than a bilingual review file allows you to pay more attention to the overall format of the document. You’re able to appreciate the position of tables and images and how these may provide cues to help guide the reader through the text. This is something that is lost in a bilingual review file that only contains the text of a document.

I suppose the solution to this would be to read the source document alongside the bilingual review file, but this counteracts the advantage of only needing to work in one document. Also, depending on the size of your screen, you may find that splitting your screen is not an option, as the user-friendly bilingual review file becomes not so friendly when it has to share the screen.

No Segmentation: Segmentation may break down the text into easy to manage chunks, but it also encourages a bottom-up approach to translation by facilitating working at the sentence level. This can be quite a troublesome approach. Even though you might come up with some excellent translations to individual sentences, if they don’t form a coherent text once they’re put together, then your translations are useless and you’ll need to start over.

With a top-down approach, you’re able to view the text in context and then break it down into appropriately sized chunks based on your judgement, rather than being at the mercy of a CAT tool. With tables, I usually find I’m most productive at the sentence level, but with the main body of text I prefer to work at the paragraph level. That way I’m able to play around with word order and make the text more concise, especially since my source languages tend to be very flexible when it comes to sentence structure.

Self-Proofreading Stage

Finally, I’m a huge advocate of doing one last self-check before you submit a file, whether revising or translating. One of my favorite tools for this is the “Read Aloud” function in Microsoft Word. It rereads the text back to you, albeit in a rather robotic voice, but it lets you rest your eyes and use your listening skills for a change. (Just remember to look out for homophones!) I find that if I’ve been working with a text for hours on end, my eyes are liable to betray me and let me see what I want to see rather than what’s there. My ears, on the other hand, are not as forgiving when they hear something that sounds wrong. This helps me pick up on possible mistakes I may have missed before.

It should be noted, however, that bilingual review files are not ideal when it comes to the Microsoft Read Aloud tool, as it’s unable to distinguish between the source and target columns and will reread everything to you. Working directly in the target file avoids this problem, as the file is already monolingual. The only disadvantage in this case is that if you’ve used track changes it will reread everything, including the original and the track changes, but you can choose when and where you use this tool throughout the text so you get the most out of it.

The Importance of Switching It Up

Before I bring this to an end, I feel like I should point out that my experience is based on working predominantly in medical and pharmaceutical translation in a limited number of language pairs, but hopefully it’s given you some food for thought to switch up your working habits every now and then, because you never know when you’ll find a more productive way of working. And if you’re interested in revising directly in the target file but you’re worried about updating the translation in the CAT tool, don’t worry. Most tools allow you to update the translation with an edited target document. You just might need to do a bit of alignment in the updating process.

  1. Bell, Andrew. “What Are CAT Tools?” BJT Language Services (March 1, 2021).

Andrew Bell is a medical and pharmaceutical translator and content writer. He works from Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan into English and specializes in the translation of journal articles and clinical trial documentation. You can find his blog at

If you have any ideas and/or suggestions regarding helpful resources or tools you would like to see featured, please e-mail Jost Zetzsche at

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