Translation management systems are the black horse of the translation industry. Unlike computer-aided translation, something most people in the business have come to understand and hopefully embrace, there is little consensus as to whether a TMS is really necessary — or even what it means.

According to our ballpark estimation, just 10% of translation companies use any kind of purpose-built translation management system at all. Of the remaining 90%, some use Excel spreadsheets of varying complexity while others “do just fine” — or so they say — without any tool at all.

So what is a translation management system? In a very basic sense, it’s a system that helps a translation company — or a translation team within a company — run its translation-related business. For that reason, it is sometimes also called a BMS — business management system — which, ironically, just adds to the confusion.

Let’s use our trusted car wash analogy. In our car wash, the CAT tool is the actual production equipment we use: water tanks, pressure washers, brushes, and whatnot. A TMS/BMS, on the other hand, is the set of tools that you need to actually run the business: cash registers, an online booking system, or even the vending machines for your visitors.

So, with this loose definition in mind, let’s look at the key TMS components of a translation team’s toolset.

1. Manage projects

First and foremost, translation management systems allow users to keep track of their projects, including deadlines, statuses, progress, assigned personnel, and so on. Unlike generic project management software or Excel spreadsheets, this gives TMS users a broader and more industry-focused overview of their ongoing translation projects.

For example, here’s what the project workspace looks like in Smartcat:

And here’s a look inside an individual project:

Because localization teams often work with more than just translation, some TMSs, including Smartcat, allow users to store and track non-translation projects like desktop publishing, interpreting, copywriting, and other related jobs.

2. Automate orders

Another thing TMS users want to be able to do is automate orders: receiving the documents to translate, preparing quotes for customers, generating invoices, and so on.

The more advanced TMSs allow customers to actively participate in this process via client portals. In this case, the customer can log on to your TMS, upload a document, and either get an instant quote, or request one from you.

Here’s Smartcat’s Client Portal, for example:

Similarly, when the job is complete, some TMSs allow users to generate invoices to send to customers. Here’s a couple of screenshots from Smartcat’s invoice generation workflow:

Another handy TMS benefit, especially if you work with software companies, is having a continuous localization architecture. With this framework, neither you nor your customers will need to submit anything manually — the system will create new projects automatically, say, when there is an update on the customer’s GitHub page or in their Wordpress blog.

Finally, some TMSs actually allow you to make and process payments via the platform. The exact mechanics differ from one system to another. In Smartcat, for example, the platform generates an invoice to the customer with Smartcat as the service provider. Once the customer pays and Smartcat receives the payment, it forwards the payment to the TMS user, excluding Smartcat’s service fee. (The latter ranges from 4 to 8% depending on several factors.)

3. Integrate with a computer-aided translation tool

CAT tools are a cornerstone of any localization workflow: They allow language service companies and in-house teams to produce better-quality translations faster. Naturally, if you use a CAT tool and a translation management system, you want them to work seamlessly together, ideally without having to do things manually.

Whether you really need a separate TMS tool is another question, but if you do, a good TMS will allow you to sync your files automatically.

You don’t have to worry about this issue if your translation platform combines both a TMS and a CAT tool under one hood. For example, in Smartcat, you can click “Open” on any document in a project, and see the CAT tool in action right away — including any real-time collaboration going on within the document right at that moment.

4. Manage vendors and freelancers

Whether you run an internal localization team or a whole language service company, one thing that makes you stand out from other service-oriented teams and companies is the number and diversity of vendors you work with. These can be in-house translators, freelancers, other language service companies — and any combinations of those, too. That’s why, unlike generic project management tools, TMSs place an emphasis on vendor management.

Most TMSs will allow you to add vendors as users to your account or have them install/subscribe to the same TMS to connect their account to yours. What only a few do, though, is give you access to an actual marketplace of vendors. This can come in very handy if you’re just starting out to build a team of translators and editors — or if you have a project that is too big for your existing team.

Here’s what the vendor management part of Smartcat looks like, along with the built-in marketplace:

5. Get data-driven

Last but not least, and especially if you run a language service company, you want to see how well you are doing over time. This means data and charts on your revenues, spendings, productivity, and so on. This information will allow you to assess your performance and make more informed decisions, like decide when it’s time to change vendors or increase your per-word rates for certain services or clients.

Here’s an analytics snapshot from Smartcat:

Do I really need it?

Although we’re making the case for several must-have TMS functionalities, we actually think there is no need to purchase a separate TMS solution. You can check the article we’ve just linked to for a detailed explanation, but the key points are that it is inefficient and expensive to try to do the same thing with two systems.

What you need, instead, is an all-in-one system that covers the whole order lifecycle: from creation and production to delivery and payments. Smartcat is exactly this kind of system. Moreover, after some research and interviews, we decided to focus on closing the “TMS feature gap.”

So, if you are one of the many who has to spend quite a bit on a separate translation management system, you might as well check out Smartcat.