Translating PDFs including layout and graphics

Many customers provide PDFs with complex formatting and graphics for translation and expect to get back a perfectly formatted file. In this article, I will briefly describe how I handle such requests and give a few thoughts, whether a translator should charge this, or give it as a free service.Fortunately, a major part of the work I get comes from partners, who are working either with CAT (SDL Trados, Star Transit, etc.) or with DTP software, such as Adobe FrameMaker, InDesign, or QuarkXPress, which allows convenient translation.

On the other hand, there are still many clients, who provide the sources in PDFs (or even JPGs or similar formats), and expect to get the same quality document, of course in a target language (and, if possible, expect to obtain the formatting service for free – I will cover this topic at the end of this article).

Let’s assume that we received a PDF for translation, which contains a lot of graphics and complex formatting. A very important issue is to decide whether to use the automatic PDF conversion tools (such as ABBYY FineReader), or to perform the conversion manually.

I have been working in the translation industry for more than 15 years, but despite the conversion technology has improved significantly, I have not experienced a single case that automatic conversion tool provided an usable output suitable for translation from PDF with complex formatting. I learned that spending time on fixing the automatic conversion result into usable file in fact takes much longer than preparing the file for translation manually from scratch. Thus, I always convert the PDFs into Word documents manually. For this purpose, I use Adobe Acrobat Pro, Microsoft Word 2007, and Corel Graphics X13.

Performing the conversion – brief description

Now, a few technical notes as to how to proceed with conversion. Copying a plain text from PDF and arranging it in Word including formatting is a common process that does not to be described in detail. The only problem could be with PDFs that are password-protected against modifications. In this case, you may try to use one of the password-breaking tools that are available on the Internet.

In many cases, the editable text goes through the pictures, and to copy the images, this text needs to be removed. Very often, the text is written in a font, which is not installed in the operating system, and thus cannot be simply deleted. I usually select the text to be removed using the TouchUp Text tool in Adobe Acrobat, right click the selection, and select the Properties option. In the dialog box that opens I change the text fill color to “none”, and the text “disappears” giving a clean image. Then I use the Snapshot tool to copy the image, paste it into Corel PhotoPaint, where I adjust its color, contrast, and some other properties (if necessary), and export the prepared image into JPG. I insert this image into the Word document and add the previously removed text. It goes without saying that I try to work with the Word styles as much as possible to be able to create automatic TOC, Index, etc. The result of this painstaking process is a “clean” Word file that is more of less identical to the source PDF.

The subsequent process is fairly straight-forward. I use the CAT tool (usually SDL Trados) for translation, export the translated bilingual file into resulting Word file, perform necessary formatting (for example, Czech text is usually longer than English, and page breaks must be fixed in this case), and export the result into PDF.

Free or for a fee

Now the question stands, whether you want to provide this service for free, or you want to charge for it. I used to consider the conversion process a part of my standard service for my regular clients and did not charge it, despite it is uneasy and time-consuming work. Recently, I have changed my approach. If the client does not want to pay for the conversion, I provide resulting translated PDF and keep the word document. If the client later requires the Word document, e.g. for updates, I ask to be paid for my conversion work, and once paid I provide the file. However, many of my regular clients can see the effort that is connected with this process, and pay the conversion without asking questions.

It would be interesting to see how other translators handle these translations. If you have any comment on this topic, please share your ideas!

TouchUp Text

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One Response to Translating PDFs including layout and graphics

  1. McRoger says:


    try to use Infix or Nitro PDF. Infix can export text to XML, and you can use XML file for translation using favorite CAT tool and after translation is completed you can import translated XML to source PDF using same tool. Nitro PDF can export PDF to MS Words file with layout, it looks nice.

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