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  • Writer's pictureRick White - Director of Client Services

Is translating a PDF really that problematic?

File this one under How To Save on Translation Costs

If you want to reduce the cost and shorten the timelines of your translation projects, the answer might be much simpler than you think. The first question you need to ask yourself is, “What file format do I usually submit for quoting?” If the answer is PDF, there are a couple parts of the translation process that might be taking longer and costing you more than you realize. Of course, we realize that at times a PDF may be the only format that exists. In that case, we are happy to work with this format and can certainly do so. However, if an editable source file exists, this is always the best file type to send to translation.

Analysis & File Prep: PDFs require manually copying and pasting each text element

When you first submit a project for a quote, the first step that your translation vendor takes is to analyze the file. That means that we have to come up with a word count, apply Translation Memory technology, and estimate whether Desktop Publishing (DTP) will be needed and how much. With editable formats such as MS Word or Adobe InDesign, the process of extracting text is fairly automatic. However, in order to determine a word count based on a PDF, someone must manually copy and paste every bit of text into another document. Then, in order for Translation Memory to analyze the text correctly, any line breaks that were added artificially as a result of the PDF’s formatting must be manually removed.

It can get worse

If the PDF that we receive is not selectable, meaning that we are unable to highlight the text, the time and effort required for analysis and file prep increases exponentially. In order to follow a standard translation process, someone will need to transcribe the text into an editable document first, basically recreating the original file from scratch.

Converting a PDF to Word might make things even worse

It is important to note that converting a PDF into a Word document is not the same as providing a Word document. Although this feature of Adobe Acrobat can be useful, most of the time it also adds a lot of extra behind-the-scenes complication to the resulting Word document. Errant section breaks and other formatting concerns can wreak havoc with a Translation Memory analysis, and therefore must be manually adjusted. If all you have is a PDF, it is better to let your translation vendor do any conversions than to attempt it yourself.

Post-translation Desktop Publishing

If you would like to receive a print-ready, translated document, Desktop Publishing services will be necessary. If you provided an editable source file such as Adobe InDesign or Microsoft Word, DTP will usually not be too involved. This important step can usually be completed with relative ease while the DTP professional adjusts for text expansion and makes sure that the layout perfectly matches the English. However, if anything uneditable was provided, the DTP specialist must recreate everything. For example, any images containing text must be recreated, usually in Photoshop. Any other pieces must be recreated as well, such as pulling in images to an InDesign file, finding the appropriate fonts, and many more steps that could have been avoided by beginning with an editable source file.

To sum up…

It’s important to remember to send editable source files whenever possible. Putting in a request to your graphic designer is usually a much more cost efficient step than having your translation vendor recreate an entire file. However, we all know that there are those times when a PDF might be all that you have, despite all efforts to track down an editable version. That’s okay.

The best course of action is to only send the PDF to your vendor and not try to convert it yourself. You should also be sure to let your vendor know exactly what deliverable is needed. If you need a print-ready file that exactly matches the English, the DTP specialists can do that, but the timeline and cost will reflect that additional effort. If only the text is important, a bilingual table set up in Microsoft Word may be a better fit. If you have any questions about the best way to deal with your source files, please feel free to contact us.


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