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Can you translate PDFs?

Dear Sir/Madam, we are a legal firm and we have several case files which have been scanned to PDFs. The documents are in English and we’d like them translated into French and German. Can you do this?

Hi Kathryn,

Thank  you for your question. The short answer is yes, we can do it however since we get asked about PDFs often, I thought I’d explain a little more about the challenges of working with them.

Translating PDF documents

Before delving into the details, it’s worth taking a few moments to consider what a PDF is as this will help make the challenges of translating them easier to understand.

PDF stands for Portable Document Format and was invented by the software company Adobe.

As the name suggests, it’s a format which is aimed at providing maximum compatibility across different document handling platforms, the idea being that anyone can view a PDF document no matter what computer or software they are using.

They work very well and have become the de facto standard for business documents.

That’s the good news. The bad news is behind the scenes, they way PDFs work is quite complicated.

How PDFs are created and why it matters when translating them

PDFs are usually created in one of two ways:

  1. As an output file from a word processor or graphics package such as Word, InDesign or Illustrator
  2. As a way of encapsulating documents as graphics when digitising them using a scanner

In the first case, translating the document and returning it again in PDF format is relatively straightforward.

You simply send us the original source files in Word, InDesign, Illustrator or whichever other package they were created in. We open the source file, translate it and then save the finished result as a PDF in the translated language and send it back to you.

In some circumstances it’s even possible to edit the PDF directly without the source files.

Unfortunately the second case is not so straightforward as the text in the PDF is not directly editable because it’s a graphic file contained within the PDF. To access the text and make it editable we use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software running on powerful computers.

The OCR software ‘looks’ as the text on the graphic in the document and converts it into editable text which we can then translate.

Loss of PDF formatting during translation

Unfortunately the OCR process is not 100% accurate meaning the original layout and formatting of the document is usually lost.

The amount of work required to recreate the formatting manually is considerable and takes time therefore pushing up the price; we suggest only stipulating that you need the layout preserved if absolutely necessary. Most people find that a simple text translation is adequate for their needs.

Tip: If at all possible, try to get hold of the source files from which the PDFs you need translating were created as this will make the translation process quicker, easier and therefore cheaper.

From what you mention in your question Kathryn, my guess is your scanned documents fall into the second category but the only way to be sure is if you would be so kind as to send them over and we’ll have a look.

We’ll happily run them through our OCR software free of charge and provide you with a free no-obligation quote.

Hope this helps.

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