Practical steps for the translation of documents


Translation is the product of a series of processes; it’s not just a matter of converting something written in one language into another.

In this post, we’re going to provide you with some practical steps which will allow you to translate any document in a more methodical and professional manner.

In order to produce a high-quality translation that reads well in your target language, you have to be organised. That’s why it’s extremely useful to follow a well-structured methodology.

Before translating

The translation process is not just focussed around the actual translating part, but much more broadly includes crucial preparation and post-processing stages. In order to keep an overview of the task ahead, it may be useful to make a check-list. Such a check-list can be used for every single translation task that you assume, no matter what kind of text you have to translate or how long it is.

Here is an example check-list:

  • Accept that there is usually no such thing as a “perfect” translation
  • How much time do you have to complete the translation?
  • What is the text about?
  • Who is the translation for?

Accepting that there is no “perfect” translation

Many translators are artistic-minded people who live in pursuit of perfection, and although perfectionism is an admirable trait to have, it’s inevitably one which can never be wholly satisfied. In fact, perfectionism can actually be a very negative work ethic in translation, as the “perfect” translation is, more often than not, completely inexistent. Once the translator has come to terms with this, he’ll be able to translate a lot more quickly and with a lot more fluidity.

Time constraints of a translation assignment

Just like all other professionals, translators have to work within time constraints, and every translation assignment naturally has a deadline. Your ability to deliver the translation within this deadline will depend on a variety of factors:

  • Other assignments

All translators should consistently keep a detailed record of all their current assignments, along with their respective deadlines. You can find examples of how to get organised with a diary and other techniques here. Although the author of the blog doesn’t actually work in translation, the concept of organisation is exactly the same. One Hour Translation has also published a helpful article for those for whom organisation just doesn’t come naturally.

  • Other commitments

Translators are, of course, humans with family commitments and other responsibilities; make sure you plan your work around your other commitments, or vice versa. Corinne McKay explains how a work-life balance is crucial to being a successful freelancer.

  • Your translation speed

As a translator, it’s important to get to know yourself and your limitations; experienced translators may translate between 2500 and 3000 words per day, but everyone works at their own rate, and inexperienced translators might only manage 300 words per hour. Speed is not the ultimate goal of translation, but it is extremely helpful when it comes to working out how long it will take you to complete an assignment, and whether the assignment itself is feasible.

  • Familiarity and specialisation

It goes without saying that your familiarity with and specialisation in a certain field will have a huge impact on your translation speed. Specialise in specific specialist fields, such as medicine or law, so as to better understand technical texts and increase your speed. There are countless sources of information on how to become a specialised translator, and here are just three of them: #1: How to become specialised; #2: Taking advantage of free online courses; #3: How to choose a specialisation.

  • The tools at your disposal

Create and use glossaries with specialist terms. In the past, dedicated translators had to struggle to compile their own lists of words alongside their technical translation terms. Nowadays, however, the Internet has enabled us to share our own glossaries and download those shared by others! Here is just one example. Glossaries are the perfect complement to computer-aided translation (CAT) tools, such as Trados or Across. When starting out, however, the two examples of translation memory software mentioned above could be a little too expensive. It may be worth getting used to other simpler (and free) systems at first, such as Wordfast or OmegaT. Creating glossaries may seem challenging at first, but it will certainly improve your translation speed if you often translate similar texts in a certain field, and there are luckily some helpful instructions on how to do so.

For many translators, Google Translate is considered public enemy number one (in fact, it arguably shares this prestigious position on the translator’s blacklist with shoddy pay, translation agencies, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors). It is a tool which you might help you to translate more quickly, and if you don’t understand the language in which something is written, it might provide you with the basic gist of what is being said.

Nevertheless, if you don’t understand the text that you have to translate, you should NEVER trust Google Translate. In other words, Google Translate will only help you when you don’t need it, as it will give you some ideas about how to translate something. However, it might also slow down the translation process and lead to mistakes in your work. We would generally warn inexperienced translators against using this automatic translation tool, while for more experienced translators it depends on how well you are able to work with it.

What is the text about and who is it for?

Before getting to work on your translation, it’s crucial that you read the source text at least once to get a general overview of what it’s about. This way, you can establish what you’ll need to look up online or in print material and you can start thinking about some of the specialist vocabulary that you’ll have to employ.

The intensity and thoroughness of your first read-through will naturally depend on the amount of time you have for the translation and the length of the text.

The first source of reliable information should always be reference books, online media and other parallel texts. The advent of the Internet has brought an unprecedented amount of books and articles into one place, most of which is available free of charge and 24 hours a day.

Although it may seem somewhat of a cliché, Wikipedia is an invaluable source of information when reading into the topic. By consulting pages in both the source and target language, you can also find out the translation of certain specialist terminology, such as the financial example from the previous two links.

Other helpful sources of information can be translator forms, such as those offered by ProZ and, more generally, by WordReference. Here, you can post your questions and have them answered by fellow translators. Moreover, you can answer other translators’ questions, in order to increase your visibility in the forums.

The preliminary reading of the source text should provide answers to the following questions, all of which are of great importance to every translator and for every text:

  • What is the style and register of the text?

The style and register of the source text also need to be translated to produce an authentic translation. This is especially important when translating marketing texts, as the commercial style of the writing is key to attracting the customers to buy the product. If your translation loses its commercial essence, your end customer could lose a lot of money.

Informality/formality is also important when translating from, say Spanish to German; whereas the familiar ‘tú’ form tends to be used more frequently than the “polite” ‘usted’, in German it is much more common to use the “polite” ‘Sie’ form when addressing adults you’ve never met, as opposed to the familiar ‘du’. Nevertheless, there may be exceptions in commercial German texts, where the seller wants to “get closer” to the buyer.

  • What vocabulary is used?

It’s very important that specialist vocabulary is translated correctly. As already mentioned, specialist dictionaries and references can help here. However, vocabulary is also an issue when translating texts which aren’t so much technical as they are cultural; certain things referred to in a source text, such as foreign food or festivals, might have to be explained to the audience of your translation. Nevertheless, it’s important that we only translate what’s in front of us and that we don’t explain our own doubts or misconceptions. Certain parts of the text may not be translatable in a literal manner, and so we have to find ways of overcoming this hurdle in translation. It’s generally of greatest importance to convey the message that the author wants to get across and not just translate the exact words and idioms he may have used into another language. The translation of cultural references is often so complicated that it has even become the subject of scholarly attention.

While it is often useful to provide cultural explanations when translating – after all, a translator should work under the assumption that his readership has no knowledge of the source language, or even the existence of the source text – certain documents do contain words and concepts which cannot be translated, for example:

– Brand names (Apple → Manzana)

– People’s names and proper nouns (George Michael → Jorge Miguel)

– Names of associations or organisations (Real Madrid → Royal Madrid)

– Laws (a translation can be given, but the original must also be retained)

– Types of companies (GmbH → Ltd.)

  • Who is the target audience?

The audience of the translation overlaps a little with its style and register. When you understand who is supposed to read the original text and who is going to then read your translation, you can then adapt your register and style to suit the target audience.

Doubts and problems when translating

After having read the text and considering all the above points on the check-list, you’ll then be in a much better position to translate the document in front of you. However, there are hardly any translations which are completely straightforward and which do not make any problems for the translator.

When questions arise during a translation, and these doubts cannot be resolved through the above-mentioned dictionaries or reference material, the most helpful thing can be to ask fellow translators. It is highly recommendable that every translator networks well on forums and in person and has a lot of friends to turn to when such situations arise. The best case scenario would be to have lots of translator friends who are native speakers of your working languages. The above-mentioned forums on ProZ and WordReference can be perfect for this.

However, it is very important that we don’t get caught up on problematic parts of the text. If necessary, make notes as you go along so that you can discuss any difficult parts of the source text with the respective person. This could be a project manager, the author of the source text or the client himself.

Proofreading of your own translation

As translators, whether voluntary or professional, it’s essential that we take pride in our work. In terms of the final quality of our work, this means thoroughly proofreading our own translation. A solid start would be to run one final spell-check on Word or in whichever computer programme that you may be using. This helps to avoid any mistakes caused by a slip of the fingertips or just by thinking about too many things at once, such as incorrectly agreed verbs or repeated words.

Nevertheless, a more thorough proofreading is also necessary to make sure that the meaning and terminology is conveyed correctly. At first, it may be helpful to take a step back from the translation and leave it a few days before revisiting what you’ve written. This way, glaring errors that you might have missed may suddenly jump out at you. You can find lots of advice online about how to become a better proofreader.

Perhaps even more important than your own proofreading is a second revision carried out by a second person. The reasons for this are obvious: The second person is not as attached to the translation and therefore not as biased and short-sighted when it comes to noticing mistakes or pointing out areas for improvement. The second reader doesn’t have to have knowledge of the source language. In fact, if the second reader only speaks your language, this will help you to find out whether or not your work “reads like a translation”. When receiving advice from other people, it is very important that all translators can handle criticism.

Another fundamental part of any revision is formatting. Although it is more practical to concentrate on the formatting of the original text as you carry out the translation, sometimes this isn’t possible when using CAT tools. However, it is important to respect the formatting of the original text, so that your translation can be used or published without the need for additional editing. Formatting acquires special importance when translating websites or texts with images and diagrams. More than simply adding an aesthetic dimension to your translation, by respecting the original formatting, you can also help your client. If we assume that the client has no knowledge of the target or source language, with accurate formatting he’ll be able to see how the various parts of the translation match up the sections of the original document.

Saving your work

Before explaining how to save your work in an intelligent manner, it is important to stress that you should save your translation as you go along, and not just at the end! When translating a document, it’s important that you change its name slightly from the original document, in order to retain the original so that you can relocate it amongst your files and use it again if you have a problem or accident. The same applies when proofreading a translation with your comments and highlights or when handing in the final translation: change the name!

This way, if the original was called “translating a document.docx”, its German translation should be called “translating a document_DE.docx” or, if it’s the second version of the work, “translating a document_DE_v2.docx”.

If you’re at the proofreading stage of the process, the translation that you’ve proofread could then be saved as “translating a document_DE_rev.docx”; the document with comments from the client of another translator could be called “translating a document_DE_rev_com.docx”, your second proofreading “translating a document_DE_rev2.docx” and the final version “translating a document_DE_fin.docx”.


As translators, it’s important that we follow a well-structured methodology when working, in order to not lose the overview of the task ahead. If we take a broad-brush approach to translating, we could say that there are three main stages in the translation process – initial reading, translating and proofreading – but, as we have seen throughout this article, each of these stages can be separated into countless more intricate processes.

We hope that by providing this methodology, you’ll be able to go about your work in a more organised and structured manner, because translating isn’t just a matter of converting one language into another!

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