Can You Translate This?

January 19th, 2008

At work I’m often asked things such as “How long will it take to translate 10 pages?” Managers usually don’t like my answer; They want to hear a specific time frame to fill in some gantt chart or something. The reality is, it depends. Most managers and such don’t understand what goes into translating something. It’s not as straightforward as just translating the words. There are other aspects that go into the localization process than just translation.

Expertise. No one is an expert on everything. If you have a technical document that needs translating, you first have to understand the content of the document. If you don’t understand electromagnetic fields in your native language, how are you going to translate that subject from another language. You will often have to research the subject matter before and during the translation process. It takes time to get familiar with a topic. It takes more time to look up industry and field specific terminology and concepts. If you have SMEs at your company, you are at the mercy of their schedules when you cannot locate information yourself.

Working with others. Unfortunately, not all translation projects can be done solely by the translator. For example, if you are given a video and asked to subtitle it in a different language, there are many steps involve that most people don’t realize:

  • Transcribe the audio
  • Translate the text
  • Match the text to the video
  • Reedit the video with the translated subtitles
  • QA check the subtitled video

Ideally, the translator will be provided with the transcription of the audio with a copy of the video so they can immediately start the translation. Then, work with the editor to set cut points for the translated text. Then the editor will reedit the video, and send it to the translator to check.

Unfortunately, what usually happens is the translator is sent the video and asked to translate subtitles for it. Now the translator has to spend time transcribing the text, then translate it. Next, they must come up with cut points themselves, and hope the editor understands it. The editor will then receive the translation and edit them into the video. It will probably never be checked, and most likely the subtitles aren’t going to match the on-screen dialog.

File formats. How long it will take to translate a document depends on what format it’s in. An XML file with pure text content and no markup can be translated easily. The text can be extracted and run through the translators favorite translation software.

A PDF on the other hand is not as easily accessible. Text may be extractable with some amount of effort, but the original document structure and style cannot be rebuilt automatically. Therefore, the translator will have to spend considerable time doing page layout work.

The worst case scenario is a scanned document, or raster graphics files. The text cannot even be extracted from the document, so translation software can’t be used. With a language like Japanese where a translator may not know the pronunciation of hard technical terms, the inability to cut and paste those words into an online dictionary creates lots of problems.

Most people don’t consider the file format when sending something to be translated. The just want it translated, and don’t want to pay for page layout and text extraction, because they don’t think that is involved with the translation process. If you send a Word document to a translator, but that word document has 50 JPGs in it with text to be translated, you are asking the translator to be a graphics specialist as well.

There are a lot that goes into the translation process. Translators often have to do much more than just translate words to do a good translation. Managers need to understand what goes into this process and provide translators with the resources they need so they can specialize on what they do best.

One Response to “Can You Translate This?”

  1. Ameya says:

    Very nice article. It reflects the thought in every translator’s mind.
    Thanks for writing.

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