Working with PDFs

Increasingly, clients send translators PDF files to work with. I’ve been sent PDFs of basic letters generated in Word. However, the majority of PDFs result from documentation created in software programs other than MS Office, Working with PDFs.

Documents that all arrive as supposedly simple PDF files include:

  • company brochures
  • websites
  • presentations with complex layout

Inadvertently, this presents a translator with a number of difficulties.

Difficulties the PDF format causes translators

Although there is PDF editing software like Adobe Acrobat, it has its limitations. Most importantly, it is unsuitable for over typing a complex PDF file in another language.

CAT tools are getting better at coping with PDFs (see also "Working with CAT tools"). However, they are not the best option for translators. This is so because CAT tools find PDFs the more difficult, the more complex the original format, the more varied the fonts and the more fancy the graphics.

Words and sentences in a foreign language are often longer than the English language version. This not only causes havoc in some of the original formatting but also with the structure of sentences. (Please read "Can you put that quickly into German?") Especially on official forms, this can be an issue. If, for example, a long sentence includes a name and a title centred on one line before the sentence ends on a second line, the German sentence can look completely different. Therefore, it will have to be reformatted.

In short: translators must convert PDF files using a PDF converter before they can translate the document.

When the original text was not a Word document

That is not a problem when the PDF was originally created in Word. It is easily reconverted into a Word file and can then be edited.

It does become a problem when the author created the original file in a different software program. A PDF converter will try to give you an editable version of a PDF file that looks exactly the same as your PDF.

However, while it looks the same, its underlying formatting is not the same. In order to get the same look, the converter inserts a colourful mix of tables, text boxes and columns. When trying to edit these - even if your text is only a little longer than the original - all formatting becomes uneven. Text ends up superimposed over images, jumps to the following page, gets mixed up with text from another part of the page etc.

Depending on the complexity of your original file, it may be impossible to recreate your original layout. You may have to reduce fonts, make text boxes larger, there will be formatting decisions the translator cannot make for the client but only together with them.

And working with PDFs takes time! Time that has to be paid for. This is why you may find that a translator’s quote for working with a PDF file is higher than that for the same text in Word format.

Using PDF files in combination with CAT tools

Working with CAT tools is a particular challenge.

CAT tools convert formatting information into tags, which are later re-translated into formatting. Shifting tags to the right place can be complex when you have to ensure that the same words are underlined or highlighted, although their position in a German sentence is different from the original English sentence.

It becomes virtually impossible when the PDF converter has inserted complex underlying tables, columns, text boxes etc., all of which are coded into tags in the CAT tool, because this produces a veritable tag salad and makes translating your text a logistical nightmare.

There are tools available for stripping out unnecessary tags, however. Unfortunately, unnecessary tags for the translation, may not be unnecessary for your formatting!

CAT tools are intended to be labour-saving devices. "Faced with" a text littered with tags, they can cause translators hours of extra work. This, in turn, will be reflected in the price you are quoted for the translation.

There isn’t really a solution for working with PDFs are here to stay. Just be aware that presenting your translator with a complex PDF can make the translation process much more time-consuming and thus much more expensive for you.