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Translation Behind the Scenes: Rough Draft

Have you ever wondered how it is that you can send what, to you, is an unintelligible, incomprehensible written document to a translator and receive a perfectly detailed, coherent text in your language of choice days later? What sorcery is this? It is as if translators are embarking on a mission to decipher a not-so-secret code, while at the same time endeavoring to perform a written mind meld with authors unknown – and succeeding. Are mind melds really involved? What actually happens after you leave your document with a translator? Although empirical evaluation of mind melds and decoding would seem difficult at best, it is a fair question indeed. This month, I will take you behind the scenes to look at the tangible aspects of the translation process. We will follow the entire translation process from document preparation, to rough draft, to editing the finished product to see what that foreign-language document goes through to morph into something you understand.

Supporting Material Analysis

Documents to be translated are rarely lone wolves – they travel in packs. It is quite common for clients to harbor a catalog of previous translations of similar subject matter. Some clients also have internal documentation that displays a writing style they admire and would like the translation to emulate. Yet others may already have a glossary full of preferred translations for important words in their documents. When a client sends a document to be translated, it will generally be accompanied by all these supporting documents. The translation process thus kicks off with the translator gathering everything up and reading through it.

Good translators are adept at recognizing important words and phrases in reference documents and incorporating them into the translation later. Your translator might read through the style document and pick out phrases typical for that style, read through the glossary of terms to see which words are there, and pick through the previous translations to see how key words and phrases were translated. Translators can’t remember everything they find in these documents of course, but they may vaguely recollect them as they move through the translation and know to search the reference documents for more specific information. This is also a reason why sending searchable documents is so important. If a translator is able to open a Microsoft Word file and search for the word in question, terminology will be much more consistent than if the translator is forced to perform a random visual scan of the document each time.

Setting Up

Once the translator knows the lay of the land, it’s time to get the file to be translated ready for action. Why can’t they just open up the file and immediately commence reveling in a world of bilingual expression? You might ask. Depending on the file format of the document to be translated, there are a few options at the translator’s disposal to make your translation as consistent as possible.

Editable documents are to non-editable PDFs what meal kits are to cooking from scratch. When you get a PDF, you know there are going to be a lot of extra steps and prepping before you can get cooking on the translation. In fact, this is such a major issue that some translators actually charge an extra fee to translate PDF files. Upon receiving a PDF, the translator might try to fend off the hardships of PDF formatting by converting it to a Microsoft Word document using PDF conversion software. The quality of this conversion depends on the visual quality of the PDF and is a hit or miss endeavor. Once the PDF has been converted, the translator will proceed as if you had sent an editable file. If it isn’t possible to convert the PDF, then the translator will have to write and format the translation from scratch in a Microsoft Word file. Opening up a fresh new Microsoft Word document, the translator will start writing, formatting, and arranging an aesthetically pleasing masterpiece to reflect the visual splendor of the original document.

Few professions have remained untouched by the many advances of the digital age and translation is no exception. A wide array of software now exists that is capable of placing editable files, such as Microsoft Word files, in translator-friendly environments. Software of this nature generally displays two columns comprised of boxes, kind of like an spreadsheet. One column contains the original document, with each box in the column holding just one sentence. The other column of boxes is left blank for the translation, so the translator can easily couple the translation of each sentence with the original. Not only does this make it easier for the translator to keep track of their progress through the document, but it also facilitates searching previous translations. In cases where a familiar word pops up or a sentence is similar to a previous sentence, the translator can easily find the word or sentence in question and see how they translated it previously. Such capabilities boost accuracy and consistency considerably, while also creating a friendly habitat for the translator’s endeavors. In some cases, supporting documents can also be uploaded to translation software for easy searchability. If a client sends a document written in German together with its English counterpart, for example, the software may be able to match up the translations sentence by sentence, so the translator can search previous translations with ease.

Rough Translation

Having satisfied all intrinsic needs for organization and analysis, the translator can now delve deep into the realm of translation. Many laymen have the misconception that translation is similar to reading a book or newspaper article. Although I would say translation involves reading, it requires a much more intensive reading method than most people apply to their emails, newspapers, or urban parking signage. When you are reading for yourself and you don’t understand an individual word, concept, or phrase it isn’t a big deal. You can just move on and still get a pretty good idea of what the text is about. In translation, an unknown word or concept is like a tiny turtle stopping traffic on the highway during rush hour. If the translator doesn’t understand even the tiniest two-letter word, they must drop everything to embark on a quest for answers. Sometimes this is as simple as looking it up in a bilingual dictionary to confirm what the translator already suspects it might mean. Many unknown words aren’t so clear-cut, however, and require much more extensive research.


Even if there is a translation for the word in the dictionary, the translation provided might be for the wrong context and therefore incorrect. Other words might not even appear in a dictionary, especially if they are highly specialized or very colloquial. When this happens, the translator must employ a series of methods to translate the word. One of the most common methods is researching the word in context to see how it is used. By reading other documents written for the same subject area of the text and using the same word, a translator can see how the word is used and what it might mean. Once the translator has an idea of what the word means, they will often also read texts containing the proposed translation to ensure the accuracy of their translation. This has the potential to reveal synonyms as well that easily give away the word’s meaning. If a noun is involved, performing a Google search can reveal pictures for use in deducing the answer. The proposed translation can then also be searched in Google to see if the translation brings up pictures of the same object. Previous translations on the internet can be helpful, and websites that have been translated into multiple languages can serve as reference material. Since translators are very proficient in both languages and generally also very knowledgeable in their fields of specialization, they may be able to translate several sentences before needing to look anything up. No matter how good the translator is, however, they will always run into multiple areas in the text that require research.

Text Uniformity

As the translator works, they will take note of any problematic areas. Sometimes research will clear up questions regarding meaning and sometimes it will remain unclear. As the translator reads along, however, they become increasingly familiar with the text and what it is conveying. By the end of the first rough translation, the translator usually has a pretty clear overview of everything being communicated. This is very helpful for the second half of the translation process, since it may clear up some questions the translator had about words and phrases that cropped up earlier in the document. The German word for “fuse” illustrates this very well. The German word for “fuse” is “Sicherung” and when translated into English, it can mean “fuse”, “security”, “computer backup”, and “lock”. Once the translator gets three-quarters of the way through the text, they may have discovered hints to indicate electronic wiring was previously being discussed when “Sicherung” was mentioned. The translator can then translate the word as “fuse”. If the translator gets most of the way through the text and discovers that the author was trying to restore the files on their computer after an outage rather than rewire it, you get the radically different translation of “backup”. It is unlikely that this information will be entirely clear until the translator takes stock of the entire text after the first rough draft.

With the rough draft in hand and a detailed knowledge of the text’s content, the translator is ready to polish their translation to perfection. Tune in next time to learn how!


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