How to translate a PDF in a cost-efficient way

How to translate a PDF in a cost-efficient way

Recently, we ran an internal survey amongst our project managers to understand what sort of questions they are asked by our customers on a daily basis. One of the purposes of the survey was to help us create content aimed at answering your questions and creating more clarity as far as language services are concerned.

However, we also wanted to find out which questions our project managers need to ask you in order to manage your requests in the best possible way. As expected, questions like “What is the deadline?” or “What languages do you need?” came up high in the rankings. But the winning question was a bit of a surprise:

“Do you have the source file?”


source file translation

Why? Because, despite all technological advancements, when it comes to translating documents, PDFs are still one of the most common file formats we handle.

In this article, I will talk about what PDF files are, where they come from, and most importantly: the best ways to handle PDFs for translation purposes.


What is a PDF file?

PDF stands for Portable Document Format. This format was invented by Adobe in the early 90s and, according to their own definition, it allows to present and exchange documents reliably independent of software, hardware, or operating system.

Where do PDF files come from?

PDF documents always originate from a different format. Every PDF file, be it an ebook, brochure, manual or presentation, were all something else before becoming a PDF. These days, pretty much any software application allows you to save or export data in PDF format.

Some of the most common origins for PDF files are:

  • Microsoft Office suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint…)
  • Adobe Creative suite (Photoshop, InDesign, FrameMaker…)
  • XML or database files
  • Scanned hard copy or handwritten files

The best way to translate a PDF file: Use the source!

As per Adobe’s definition, PDFs are wonderful for reliably exchanging information across multiple devices. The problem is that PDF is not an editable format. And this makes things complicated when you need to edit or translate one of them.

In such cases, you should do your best to find the original file from which the PDF originates and share that with your translation provider. Most of us use translation memory software to process those source files and make the translation more efficient in terms of time, cost and quality.


If you don’t send an editable version of the PDF you want to translate, your translation provider will have to spend some time extracting the content and recreating the original layout in the new language version. In some cases, it may also take longer to translate the file. And time is money.


See those Desktop Publishing charges on your translation quote? The longer your provider has to spend extracting or recreating the content from the original file, the higher those costs will be. Working with the actual source files also allows for better leverage from your translation memory, thus optimizing the cost and time required to do the translation.


The fact that you can better leverage your translation memory with the editable files has a direct impact on quality. The translation will be more consistent and terminologically accurate. It will also be easier for the translated version to mirror the look and feel of the source document so that its branding remains untouched.

PDF Conversion

Yes, yes, I get it. It is not always possible to access the editable files. Maybe the file comes from a different department or subsidiary that is difficult to reach. Or the graphic design team that created the file is reluctant to share the editable format. In these cases, if you want your translated document to mirror the source layout 100%, chances are you will have to assume some DTP charges, thus raising the translation costs for the document.

But there are other scenarios where there simply isn’t an editable digital file because the document is a scan from a handwritten or hard copy file. That is where OCR technology comes in handy.

What is an OCR?

OCR stands for Optical Character Recognition. This is a technology that is used to turn scanned documents, images and other file types into an editable format.

However, its efficiency depends a lot on the layout and the clarity of the original document. So, if you’re planning to process a hardly-legible scanned document through an OCR software, don’t expect to get a perfectly formatted and legible editable file. Because you might get a myriad of strange characters and accented letters instead. There are plenty of free and paid OCR solutions online: from professional tools like ABBY Fine Reader or Adobe Professional to free solutions like Google Docs.

The bottom line

Whenever you need to translate a PDF, do your best to get hold of the original, editable file from which it was created. This will help you streamline the translation process in terms of time, cost and quality.

Who knows, maybe in a few months the rankings for the top 3 questions asked by our project managers will be different…

Until then, don’t hesitate to share your most popular question about translation services in the comments section!

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By | 2017-06-06T13:16:40+00:00 March 15th, 2017|Blog, Translation Industry Explained|

About the Author:

José Jóvena is a well-rounded translation & localization professional with over 10 years of industry experience. Having worked as a translator, project manager and account manager in the past, José now specializes in Digital Marketing. Passionate about languages and new technologies, José is fluent in Spanish, Catalan, English and Italian.

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