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  • Writer's pictureCarlie Sitzman MA, CT

The Right Reference Material

The body of your e-mail is complete. In it, you’ve regaled the translator with tales of who will be using the translation, painted a picture of the venues the freshly minted document will frequent, and requested a reasonable deadline. Don’t click “Send” just yet though, because an unaccompanied e-mail is a very lonely e-mail indeed. You will want to send along the document you want translated of course, together with a covey of reference documents (if you have them) to make sure the job gets done right. Now you might be asking yourself, what more could the translator want beyond the document to be translated? That’s exactly the question I will be answering today and the answer starts with four document types: glossaries, style guides, lists of abbreviations and acronyms, and previous translations and documentation.

The Document to be Translated

Surprisingly, failing to send the document to be translated is a common mistake customers make in the first e-mail. This is quite a shame when it happens, since it is completely impossible to assist customers or move forward in any way without a document. Reviewing the text allows the translator to estimate how difficult it will be to translate it, exactly how much text the document contains, how long it will take to translate it, and whether the content is a good fit for the translator’s area of expertise. Since every document has a different writing style, font size, content, etc., there is no way to gather all of the vital information from a verbal description of the document. So be sure your translator gets a copy of the document to be translated pronto! The only reason not to send the document in the first e-mail is if you have confidentiality concerns. Translators are bound by their professional code of conduct to maintain the confidentiality of all documents passing through their hands. If you feel a need for extra caution, however, they will surely be glad to sign a confidentiality agreement for you. Just replace the document in your first e-mail with a confidentiality agreement, then follow that up later with the document to be translated!


Creating a glossary is a way to lock in your favorite terminology and word translations before the translator even commences work. It generally consists of a list of words in one language matched side-by-side with their preferred translations in another language. Sometimes a glossary might also contain definitions of the words, background for when and where the word is used, and even special instructions for translating the word. Glossaries are very useful when you want to your texts to be more uniform and when there are specific words and phrases you have chosen so your texts will project a unique brand image. Let’s say you are selling power-assist electric bicycles and you want a document translated from German into English. There are multiple different synonyms for the word “bicycle” in English, including “bike” and “cycle”. These may or may not have equivalents in German. You’ve determined that the words “cycle” and “two-wheeler” are the hippest and most attractive ways of referring to your bicycle. If your translator doesn’t have a glossary containing these words, they might not choose “cycle” or “two-wheeler” at all, but rather “bike”. Then if you have a different translator working on a different text for you later, they might choose “bicycle”. Creating a glossary and sharing it with your translator prevents such variation on important words in your document and ensures that your company’s unique lingo is applied.

Even when a single translator is working on a text, it is common for them to forget the word used at the beginning of the text and accidentally substitute a synonym later on. Most translators are aware of this pitfall and will basically create their own glossaries as they move through the translation. This ensures that a “bike” is always referred to as a “bike” and not “bicycle”, that “handlebars” remain “handlebars” and don’t morph into “handles”, and so on. If you want to start a glossary of your own, try asking your translator for assistance. They may be able to share the glossary they’ve already developed, or work with you to identify important words and discuss appropriate translations to start off your glossary on the right foot.

Style Guide

If your company has already established official standards for its documentation, you may already have a style guide. Basically, a style guide can specify the preferred grammar, punctuation, and writing style for the document. Some style guides go into great detail, while others are more general. Many of my marketing clients, for example, have more general style guides that say things like “we prefer short, concise sentences”, “we never use abbreviations and acronyms”, “we prefer playful language with ample use of figures of speech”, etc. Others like to get into the nitty-gritty and specify whether the comma is written inside or outside of quotation marks, whether or not something should be capitalized after a colon, etc. It’s up to you to decide whether you need a style guide and what will be in it. Your translator may be able to assist with this, by going over past translations or other texts and helping you identify the style that works best for your business. Sharing any existing style guides with the translator is also essential, since this allows them to carry your company’s current writing style into the next translation.

List of Abbreviations and Acronyms

Unexplained abbreviations and acronyms are akin to a poorly executed art project. Sure, you know what it means, because you’re the one who drew the picture. To the uninitiated, however, it remains an interpretive mystery. Before you request a translation, take a step back and ask yourself if there are a lot of acronyms and abbreviations in your document. If there are, take some time to make a list of all acronyms and abbreviations and their meanings. Not only does this help your translator understand the text better, it also alerts them as to whether or not these little units of meaning need to be translated into an equivalent unit of meaning for the target audience or simply left alone.

When a translator encounters an acronym or abbreviation, they will generally enter it into an acronym lookup tool and get an average of ten or more possible answers back. This may or may not demystify the meaning of the acronym or abbreviation, depending on if one of the answers clearly belongs within the context of your text. In cases where the meaning remains unclear, the translator will contact you to ask about it. Sending your translator a list of acronyms and abbreviations together with their meanings at the outset can therefore speed up the translation process and reduce the amount of questions you have to field. Since acronyms can have so many different meanings, you also run the risk that the translator will pick the wrong one and misunderstand the text altogether. It’s best to just stop the interpretive dance of acronym comprehension in its tracks with a clear list of acronyms and abbreviations, so that everyone can appreciate your composition as intended.

Previous Translations and Documentation

Sending the translator previous translations and documentation written in the target language can help the translator maintain uniformity across documents. When a translator reads through a previous translation before starting in on the new one, they can often pick out key phrases, wording, and translations of specific terms that are unique. Applying these in the new text helps maintain the same style across documents, thus making your company’s compositions seem more professional, consistent, and impressive over the long run. As you consider which previous translations to send the translator, keep in mind that documents written on similar subject matter or similar document types will be more helpful than texts involving a completely different topic or of a different document type. If you work for a car manufacturer, for example, the phrasing and vocabulary may be very similar across electronic specifications. The phrasing in sales and distribution documentation, however, is likely to be very different. Also be sure to mark which documents are only to be used as references, since the translator may otherwise get confused as to which documents need to be translated. You can generally do this by writing “reference” at the end of the file name, or clearly telling your translator which documents serve which purpose.


Wishing you had your very own glossary? Contact me and I’ll help you get one started for free!

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