Talk, don’t type: Translating via Dragon Dictate and Dragon Naturally Speaking

This blog post has been brought to you today by the industrious voices of Matthew Young and Pippa Sandford.

I dictated a tweet requesting feedback on speech recognition tools, and these savvy Dragon users agreed to share their thoughts about translating out loud: Matthew Young, a Japanese to English translator, uses Dragon Dictate (for Mac), and Pippa Sandford, a French and Italian to English translator, uses Dragon Naturally Speaking (for PC).

Q1: What are the biggest advantages of using Dragon over typing?

Matthew: Being able to translate more words per day. I’m not a touch typist, so this is the primary benefit for me.

Matt Young

However, my interest in voice recognition software stems from a workshop held by a fellow Japanese translator who suffers badly from incurable repetitive strain injury (RSI). She uses Dragon Naturally Speaking for that reason, so that’s also in the back of my mind as a secondary benefit of the product.

Also, my posture while translating has also improved. You don’t need to be right over your keyboard, and it’s much easier to sit in a more natural, comfortable position, and even move about.

Pippa: Speed. I can get a first draft down quickly, which means I usually have time to leave the whole job for a day or so before rereading it for the last time. This is probably the single most important factor in improving quality, for me.

Pippa Sandford

Actually, when I first got Dragon about fifteen years ago, I kept putting off installing it. Then one night I realized I’d misread a deadline and had 1300 words on hypercholesterolaemia to deliver first thing the next morning, not lunchtime.

I wasn’t physically capable of typing it out after a day’s work, so reckoned I had nothing to lose by just going for it with Dragon. Installation and training took about an hour (it’s much quicker now), and I then dictated the whole translation straight off in about 20 minutes, including terminology checking, formatting and post-editing. There was even time for a few hours’ sleep before final proofing and delivery on time.

Also, I think I write more clearly when I’m dictating. For a long time I’ve proofed some jobs by reading them aloud. Ears seem to be less forgiving of awkward constructions than eyes are.

Q2: What else do you like about Dragon?

Matthew: Aside from increased productivity, I like the remarkably good dictation accuracy even when translating highly technical material.

I like being able to move around the room and still dictate, having no tingly fingers after a long day of typing, and being able to listen to music at a reasonable volume without it affecting dictation accuracy.

Pippa: Other than the speed with which I can get a first draft down, I don’t get RSI in my wrists any longer, even though I still use the keyboard a lot.

I like the “disconnect” between my brain and the computer, too. When I’m typing, there’s a constant flow of words from brain to fingers to screen. With dictation, I think I take a more considered approach for the first draft. I certainly edit less (except for the dictos!).

Q3: What do you dislike about Dragon?

Matthew: It’s a very memory-heavy programme. Until last week, I was using a 5-year-old iMac with 4GB of RAM, and Dragon Dictate could make the computer run slowly if I had several other programmes running (which I generally did). However, I have just upgraded to a new iMac with a quad-core processor and 16GB of RAM, and this problem has vanished completely. It’s now almost telepathically fast.

Also, while it is generally good at learning which homonyms to select based on frequency of use (such as cited instead of sighted), there are a few it just won’t learn. For example it always gives me “Greece” instead of “grease” despite being corrected dozens of times.

Pippa: Sometimes it’s frustrating when it doesn’t recognize words I know that I’ve added or trained it to recognize. But I do find that retraining or repeatedly correcting them does actually work in the end. And you only need one text full of “hypercholesterolaemia” and “triglyceridaemia” to remind yourself why it’s worth the effort!

Q4: Does Dragon change the way you translate?

Matthew: I don’t think it’s changed the way I translate, probably because I’m a scientific translator. Literary translators may find that it does change the way they translate.

It has altered the way I write emails. I’m sure they’re often more like spoken English than written English these days, which isn’t a problem for 90% of the emails I send.

Pippa: You also have to edit in a slightly different way, to make sure you pick up words that sound alike or dictos which are so wildly different from what you intended. You get used to this, and it doesn’t take any longer than normal editing.

I don’t edit and proof using my voice—I use the keyboard and mouse as I find it quicker and more accurate.

Q5: Do you use Dragon with a CAT tool?

Matthew: Dragon Dictate works extremely well with AppleTrans (an old and fairly basic CAT tool, but easy to use and extremely stable), but I had all sorts of problems when I tried to use it with WordFast Classic, which crashed on almost every sentence. However, that may have been at least partly due to the memory issue I mentioned above. I’m planning to try the Dragon Dictate/WordFast combination again on my new iMac and see if it behaves better.

Pippa: I use Dragon Naturally Speaking with SDLX. I think DNS is optimized to work with Trados, and with SDLX you can’t use formatting or correction. But since Dragon had got used to my voice and is pretty accurate, that hasn’t been a problem. The real advantage is that I can just rattle through a text without having to worry about formatting or positioning the cursor.

Q6: What advice would you give to someone who is about to get Dragon?

Matthew: Don’t set your sights too high. If you buy Dragon Dictate expecting your keyboard to become completely redundant, you’ll probably end up disappointed. You can carry out most formatting and editing functions using Dragon Dictate, but I have found that it can be quicker to use the keyboard for some things. For example, I could use the “vocabulary editor” to teach it chemical terms such as “bis(diisopropylaminomethyl)phenylboronic acid” but there’s little point. It may well struggle with such a long word, and there’s a good chance I’ll never need it again anyway. Overall, I would estimate that my keyboard usage has been reduced by around 95%, and I’m perfectly happy with that.

Get a good wireless headset. The basic headset supplied by Nuance is fine in terms of accuracy, but gets pretty uncomfortable (hot ears) after a whole day of dictating, and also makes it hard to hear music, phone calls, doorbells etc. I spent about £150 (€170 or US$240) on a Plantronics W430, which is small, light and comfortable and can do about 8 hours on a single charge. It was money well spent— being able to walk about as you translate is a surprisingly liberating experience.

Drink plenty. Talking all day makes you thirstier than you might imagine.

Pippa: Be patient with it. Train it and correct mistakes. The program does learn eventually.

Learn to use it creatively. I’ve only scratched the surface with it, but if you use macros or shortcuts it’s even more powerful. For example, you can dictate just one word of a title, company name etc. that you may need to insert regularly, but train the whole phrase so that it’s inserted automatically.

Matt and Pippa, thank you! Now I’d love to hear what other translators think of voice recognition. Have you tried it? Please contribute to the discussion in the comments.


10 thoughts on “Talk, don’t type: Translating via Dragon Dictate and Dragon Naturally Speaking”

  1. Great interview, thanks for running this Catherine. I do enjoy reading about the experiences of other translators with software like this – far more credible than a vendor’s sales pitch or data sheet!

    Unfortunately my experiences with voice recognition software has not been so good, and left a bit of a bitter taste to be honest. (Although to be fair, maybe the software has improved in the intervening years.)

    I bought Dragon Dictate for Mac when it first came out in Australia about 3 years ago to help relieve my RSI. I was fully ready to be play around with it and be patient, but despite much experimenting and “training” (for me and for it) over a period of 12 months, I came to the conclusion that it was just not going to work for me. Even at its best, the output took far longer to clean up than if I had typed it from scratch.

    I remember being particularly disappointed with the level of support too. The default responses were to try a better microphone, to make sure I was speaking at my usual pace, and to keep practising. I spent a lot of time and money trying to follow this advice because I really wanted it to work, but to no avail. (I was assured my Irish accent shouldn’t have been an issue too, “with training”!)

    I was pretty desperate, but I got my RSI under control through other methods in the end. And I was left feeling duped at having spent so much time and money on what was – for me, at least – a completely useless piece of software.

    I don’t doubt that voice recognition software works well for some people. And maybe I will find a way to make it work for me in the future (just not Dragon Dictate). But I would recommend that translators play around with someone else’s software to be sure that it’s going to suit them before shelling out.

    1. Hullo Sarah,

      I believe there is the option, at the initial training of the software, to specify an accent.

      I find that on the whole, it is quicker to use DNS, but there are some perfectly common words I use for which the software comes up with an incongruously recondite counterpart (armillo rendered as armadillo, say – like a deaf old relative completely getting the wrong end of the stick). I also find that its speech model entirely fails to take account of the dynamics of my English: unstressed words tend to get get overlooked, and I have to go back over the text to put such things right – vexatious. Look at the help menu about regional accents: sadly, I see Hibernia is not explicitly represented, but one can choose “British accented English”. I shall send a comment to Nuance next.
      I hope this may help.
      With kind regards,
      Adam Warren.

  2. Thanks for this post, it’s so helpful to get real reviews from people who are actually working with the software, and in translation too!

    I’m intrigued with the idea of using Dragon. I type pretty fast so I am actually more interested in the potential health benefits – rest for your fingers, better posture, and even getting to move around while you work – that’s huge – and these are all benefits I hadn’t thought of.

    And this will probably sound dumb, but I talk a lot less during work hours than I used to pre-freelancing; it might actually be good to talk a little more during the day, even if it’s just to a computer! 🙂

    Matthew and Pippa’s reviews raised some questions too, like how does it help with formatting? Is it likely to still be useful if your work doesn’t involve many repeated words? And why do you need a headset – just if you want to move around?

  3. Katherine,

    Do you mean why do I use a headset as opposed to, say, a desk microphone? If so, I’ve never used a microphone for dictation, and I’m guessing you’d need a fairly trick one to filter out external noise as it would be a good deal further from your mouth than a headset.
    Also, the Plantronics headset I bought is extremely comfortable even if worn for hours at a time – I often forget I have it on and answer the door to the postman with it still perched on my ear. It’s also extremely effective at not picking up music etc., meaning that I can play my music at a similar to volume as when I type – quite important for me, as I find it hard to work in silence.

    I hadn’t thought of the benefit of talking more during the working day, but given that 90% of my business is patent translation, I don’t think that speaking patentese out loud all day will really improve my social skills – it’s hardly poetry.


    I’m sorry (and a little surprised) to hear of your bad experiences with Dragon Dictate. I’ve found the accuracy to be extremely good for almost anything except complex chemical terms. I think the software may have probably come on a fair way since you tried it. The latest version (2.5) seems very good, but, as I mentioned in the original blog post, I think a computer with lots of memory is essential. I noticed a big difference in stability and speed when I upgraded from an iMac with 4GB of RAM to one with 16GB.

    I’ve never really had cause to contact Dragon’s customer support, but (sadly) poor customer service seems to be more and more common in many industries these days. I had a major falling out with Adobe over their customer service last year. Too many companies seem to regard investing in competent, dedicated staff as a luxury they can’t afford any more.

  4. Dear Catherine,

    As I type this comment, without Dragon, I realize it even stronger how much more I’ve become dependent on it. I have been using Dragon with my PC for over four years now and it has become my extension. I cannot do without it while I’m working.

    Number of benefits: my number one disability being ‘time constraint’ having a pair of twin boys to take care of while doing my time at work. Dragon has indeed been a boon.

    Now I’m a little lazy to actually use the fingers for typing, as Dragon works on everything.

    I had been thinking of changing over to Mac, but was not sure whether the transition would be easy, not being sure about the effectiveness of Dragon with it. That is where your article helped reaffirm my faith.

    Thank you Matt for the suggestion about using the “Plantronics W430” headset.

    I have not had much problem regarding the accuracy in typing with Dragon. I’ve always managed to train and re-train the vocabulary that I would use while working on a certain domain. I am an ardent supporter of Dragon, from the day I set my ‘voice’ on it!


    Thank you for this valuable article once again!

  5. Matt, yes I was thinking of dictating into a built-in microphone. Hadn’t thought about external noise. However, I like the idea of a headset anyway for the benefit of moving around a bit more.

    Oh and yeah, talking to Dragon isn’t really going to help your social skills; actually I’m having second thoughts now – isn’t talking to yourself supposed to lead to insanity?! Maybe a strike against. 🙂

  6. I bought my Dragon Dictate at a store in Canada, so it came with a microphone. If you download it, you need to buy your own. What’s great about the microphone is that I can move around a little and even translate lying down if I want to.

    So far I’ve been dictating first drafts only. I do not revise using dictation. But my first drafts are more “finished” than typed first drafts. Why? I think carefully before I talk, whereas I used to type out whatever came to mind first. (In this respect, dictating is similar to writing out your work longhand.) Also, I correct mistakes immediately by saying “scratch that” to take out the last group of words, or I say “delete word” to remove the last word or punctuation mark.

    Dragon can be frustrating. “Thrive” can be understood as “size” and “rise” and “five” and much more. But all things considered, I’m happy with my purchase. I am not more wildly productive, but my body is grateful for this new way of working.

  7. Catherine, if you correct “size” or “five” into “thrive” using Dragon (i.e., not correcting by typing), it will eventually learn that you use “thrive” more than the other options. This has worked for me in cases such as “cited” as opposed to “sited” or “sighted”.
    I recommend having the “always show recognition window when dictating” option checked.
    Then, when you have a list of possible alternatives, you can simply say “choose 2″ if the 2nd option on the list is the one you want.

  8. I am a translator working with media, specifically press reviews of Turkish politics and economics. I would be very interested to know how easy it is to programme Dragon to recognise foreign words. I tend to need “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan” etc. rather a lot!

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