Preparing Documents for Translation

Here is a reminder of the importance of preparing a document before translation as part of a standardized quality assurance workflow, including a step-by-step review of the process.

Translation technology such as computer-assisted translation tools and machine translation has dramatically changed current productivity, budget, and quality expectations. Under increased pressure to shorten turnaround times and reduce costs, freelance translators working with direct clients and language services providers (LSPs) are sometimes tempted to rush jobs into production. As a former production director and a full-time translation editor and consultant for over 30 years, I continue to believe in the importance of standardized quality assurance workflows to ensure that the client’s requirements are satisfied.

The first phase in a quality assurance workflow is to prepare the project for translation (or “prepping” as we used to call it at the LSP where I worked). During this step, project specifications are defined, written down, and communicated to all team members so they can perform the assigned task successfully.

Given the high degree of complexity of some translation projects today, it’s even more critical not to skip the “prepping” phase. The following is meant to refresh our knowledge on this basic and crucial step in the translation process.

Why Should We Prepare Documents for Translation?

If the document prepper doesn’t understand something, chances are the rest of the team won’t either. While translators, editors, and proofreaders are expected to perform some research, certain information about client requirements or preferences can only be provided by the client or LSP. Translation team members need this information to perform their tasks correctly.

To achieve this, the prepper can identify questions or concerns upfront and address potential problems ahead of time. If delivered in a timely manner, complete and accurate information about a project might help avoid costly mistakes.

Who Should Prepare a Document for Translation?

When preparing a document for translation, neither the direct client nor tech savvy staff at an LSP can substitute for an experienced language professional. Direct clients know their own company and industry better than the translation provider, but they are not linguists. Tech savvy staff can navigate through the most complex translation technology software, but many are also not linguists.

A good document prepper must:

  • Have a clear understanding of the client’s needs and the specifications agreed upon between the client and translator or the LSP’s sales/marketing team.
  • Be able to examine the document from the perspective of each team member in order to write clear instructions for everyone involved. The goal is to ensure each team member can complete their task correctly and in a timely manner to make it easier for everyone else down the quality assurance workflow.
  • Research problems and provide suggestions/solutions to any issues.
  • Have excellent communications skills. When questions and problems arise, the prepper must be able to discuss these in a polite and effective manner with the client or team.

How Do You Prepare a Document for Translation?

Follow these steps when preparing a document for translation:

1. Gather the approved specifications, documents, and reference material. It’s important to work with the final versions of documents. Making changes during the translation process may impact cost and/or turnaround time. If changes are ongoing, a process to track and document them must be implemented.

Clients don’t always understand what type of reference material to provide, so the prepper must be specific about what could be helpful. Reference material might include information on previous jobs, translation memories, customized machine translation engines, brochures, videos, podcasts, webinars, photographs, glossaries, specialized dictionaries, or a list of relevant databases.

2. Read and “survey” as much of the document(s) as possible and mark the sections where the prepper has questions.1 The prepper should ask themselves the following:

  • What type of document is it and what is it for? For example, is it for informational or marketing purposes? Is it a manual, marketing material, a script, software strings, a materials safety data sheet, or a website?
  • Who wrote the document? Was it written by a lay person, a specialist, or a manufacturer?
  • What is the quality required? Is it for internal use only, for publication, FYI, etc.?
  • What is the intended target audience? Is it for customers, specialists, or suppliers? What is the desired tone (informal or formal)?
  • What is the target language? If necessary, specify region or “language variant.”
  • What are the deliverables? For example: hard copy, file format, other media, certified, notarized, etc.
  • What is the turnaround time and is it feasible given the specifications?

3. Identify potential problems. Every language poses different problems, but the prepper must be on the lookout for issues in areas such as:

  • Terminology: Is there a lexicon/glossary? Should some terms be left in the source language?
  • Measurements: Are conversions to another system of measurement needed?
  • Formatting: Should source formatting be followed?
  • Target-language mechanics: Languages have different rules when it comes to capitalization, spaces after punctuation, certain symbols, numbers, accents, syllable division, abbreviations, acronyms, etc.2
  • Alphabetized lists or indices.
  • Modifier strings: This is one of the most common problems when translating from English into another language and can trip up even the best of translators.

4. Research potential problems and find solutions. Ideally, each person on the team should solve the problems they encounter during their phase in the production workflow. The reality is that oftentimes issues are simply ignored. There are many reasons for this, including tight turnaround, lack of a timely response from the client or project manager, or simply that the team member assumes somebody else down the line will fix the problem. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of the prepper to spot potential issues and solve as many of them ahead of time as possible so as not to disrupt the workflow or budget.

Once they’ve identified what they don’t understand, the prepper must determine if they can research the problem themselves or need clarification from the client. How?

Start by checking the reference material (especially if this is a repeat client). If the reference material doesn’t provide the answers, the prepper must begin their research. We’re extremely fortunate to live in an age where information is readily available.

  • Become an expert at refining searches.
  • Set up a preliminary online resources list.

If clarification is still necessary, the prepper should set up a meeting (in person, telephone conversation, videoconference, etc.) with the client and prepare ahead of time.

  • Be aware of the client’s personality, linguistic understanding (if any), and/or potential stressful issues about this particular project.
  • Have a basic understanding of the client’s line of work and full knowledge of the project specifications that were agreed upon.
  • Write down questions/concerns ahead of time. Always be diplomatic and polite. Questions should not contain judgments or criticisms.
  • Make the meeting short and to the point.

5. Write and provide guidelines for team members. All jobs should include basic information about the project (see questions under Number 2 above). The prepper must be able to determine whether or not a project requires additional instructions. These may range from none to minimal or lengthy and complex. No instructions or excessive instructions can both lead to confusion, interminable requests for clarification, or, even worse, grave mistakes. Guidelines should include the following:

  • Basic information:
    • A short description of the type/purpose of the project, word count, and desired quality. Example: A 4,000-word adult-informed consent for the clinical trial of medication XYZ for publication purposes.
    • Project information such as source and target language, deliverables, target audience, tone, start date, and turnaround time for each team member.
  • Additional instructions (if necessary):
    • Specific issues grouped under categories (e.g., terminology, target-language mechanics, formatting, etc.).
    • Style guidelines are common for large-volume clients and must be easily searchable and cover all client preferences applicable to the project. It’s important to provide specific and comprehensive examples.

6. Ask the team for feedback. Encourage team members to ask questions and give feedback. For example, is there anything they don’t understand or need to clarify?

Preparation Should Not Be an Afterthought

Preparing documents for translation should never become a luxury we cannot afford or a casualty of tight deadlines or budgets. A big-picture approach suggests that most clients would be happy to extend a deadline by an hour, a day, or even a week to ensure they receive the quality (however the client defines it) they require. So, save yourself some stress, extra work, and possibly losing a client by getting it right the first time!

Additional Resources
  1. For more information on the “surveying” technique of the “survey-question-read-recite-review” reading strategy (otherwise known as SQ3R), see: Carter, Carol, Joyce Bishop, and Sarah L. Kravits. Keys to Success: Building Analytical, Creative, and Practical Skills (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009), http://bit.ly/keys-success.
  2. Ramsey, Fowler, and Jane E. Aaron. The Little, Brown Handbook (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2012), http://bit.ly/brown-handbook.

Itzaris Weyman, CT is a freelance translation editor specializing in quality assurance for large-volume projects, third-party review, and linguistic analysis. She also serves as a translation production consultant for small- to mid-size translation companies. She is an ATA-certified English>Spanish translator. In addition to ATA, she is a member of the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Florida. Contact: itzarisweyman@americaslanguagebridge.com.

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