Top 10 Document Translation Tips and Pitfalls

Leonardo Duran, General Manager of Language Services

1. Make sure the source text is readable.

To help speed up the translation process and ensure accuracy, it’s best to have an electronic file in an editable format such as MS Word. If an editable file is not available, try to get the best quality scan possible. If the document is partially illegible, there may be important text missing from the translation. The translator will usually indicate any illegible text in the translation with a note brackets. For example: “The patient exhibited symptoms of [illegible].” If a better copy is obtained later, the translator can go back and fill in the gaps.

2. Allow enough time for translation.

Accurate translation takes longer than most people think, often 2 to 3 times longer than it takes to write the original document. Some language combinations, such as English to Spanish, are faster than others, such as English to Chinese. This is because English and Spanish have similar structure and word order, not to mention they use the same alphabet. Many Asian languages, however, use character-based writing systems that are more difficult to type. They also use a completely different word order than English, meaning the translator must take extra steps to dissect and rewrite each sentence. Although rush service – including splitting a large document among different translators – is always an option, the more time you allow, the more consistent and readable the translation will be.

3. Avoid machine translation whenever possible.

Machine translation is a rapidly developing field and the technology has improved greatly over the last several years. However, as anyone who has ever tried using free online translation tools such as Google Translate knows, the results can often be just short of gibberish. Machine translation engines still have a hard time differentiating between words with multiple meanings and deciphering word order and context. They do better between languages with similar structures but can wreak havoc with Asian languages, producing often laughable results. That said, machine translation can be a quick way to get a very rough idea of the topic of a document or website – but human translation is always better whenever comprehension is critical.

4. Don’t rely on bilingual employees or family members.

Being bilingual doesn’t automatically enable someone to translate between languages accurately, the same way being good at math doesn’t make someone a good accountant. Translation requires a different skill-set that most people don’t naturally possess, even if they grew up with both languages. This is particularly the case with complex subject matters such as legal, financial and technical. Without the proper background and training, most bilinguals are unable to handle high-level language beyond informal conversation. Like any profession, translation skills must be developed overtime through many years of education and experience. To protect yourself and your business, always use a professional translation service.

5. Be aware of dialects and other language variants.

Some languages, such as Chinese, can vary by country or region. For example, Chinese uses two different character sets for writing – simplified and traditional. Mainland China uses simplified characters, but Taiwan and Hong Kong use traditional. This is different than spoken dialects of Chinese like Mandarin, Cantonese, etc. For example, residents of Beijing and Taipei both speak Mandarin, but they use different characters when writing. That’s why it’s important to rely on a professional translation provider like Magna. Our language experts know the right questions to ask and can advise you on what language variants are appropriate for different audiences.

6. Beware of text expansion and other formatting pitfalls.

Some languages use more words than others to express the same thing, thus taking up more space on a page. For example, when translating from English to Spanish, the number of words will typically expand by about 20%. This means your 3-page English document may end up being 4 pages long in Spanish, affecting page number references, table of contents, indexes, etc. Other languages present different challenges. Chinese and Japanese, for example, don’t put spaces between words, and Arabic and Hebrew are written from right to left. Magna’s Language Services team can advise of these issues in advance to avoid surprises and make sure your translation is properly formatted.

7. Finalize the source document first, then translate.

If possible, make sure the source document goes through all the necessary revision processes before you start translating. This will save you the time and cost of implementing multiple rounds of changes, especially if you’re translating into multiple languages.

8. If budget is a concern, review first, then translate.

You have a stack of documents in a foreign language, but you’re not sure what’s relevant. Before you pay to translate everything – and run the risk of a small return on your investment – Magna’s Language Services team can review the documents for relevance first. Let us know what you’re looking for – the more criteria you can provide, the better. Once the relevant set of documents is identified, the full translation process can begin. Alternatively, ask for a summary translation of each document, i.e., a short paragraph describing the contents.

9. Keep your terminology consistent.

If you’re translating large sets of related documents – especially if it’s a large project that will be split among multiple translators – it’s a good idea to keep your terminology consistent. Many terms and phrases have multiple correct translations, so establishing preferred word choices in advance can help guarantee comprehension across multiple documents. Magna’s Language Services team can help by creating terminology glossaries for your project, which can be updated and revised as needed. These glossaries can be leveraged for future projects as well.

10. Take advantage of translation memory tools.

Translation memory tools keep track of how sentences are translated, so that if the same or similar sentences appear again later, they can be translated exactly the same way. This not only helps you maintain consistency, it also speeds up the translation process and can keep translation costs down by leveraging repetitions or so-called “fuzzy matches,” i.e., sentences that are more than 50% but less than 100% the same. Not all translations are translation memory compatible. Ask Magna’s Language Services team whether translation memory is right for your project.