How to Translate Documents: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Learn everything you need to easily translate Word, PDF, and other documents with automatic translation tools or human input.

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From product manuals, help content, support channels, and marketing collateral, to employee handbooks and financial reports, document translation is like the oxygen of global business.

Companies on track for global growth need to meet the challenge of international expansion by effectively communicating with customers, partners, and employees across geographies and timezones.

To help you make the most of it, this step-by-step guide will let you know everything you need to easily translate Word, PDF, and other documents with automatic and human translation.


What makes translating documents so challenging?

The first step in translating documents is to understand the challenges involved. Here’s an overview of the most immediate ones:

  • Formatting: Documents come in a variety of formats (e.g., PDF, Word, Excel, PowerPoint) and often include complex formatting that can be difficult to replicate in another language.
  • Layout: The layout of a document must be carefully considered to ensure that the translated content fits correctly on the page and is easy to read.
  • Graphics: Documents often contain graphics, charts, and other visuals that must be translated as well.
  • Terminology: Documents often include specialized terminology that can be difficult to translate accurately.

What’s the most translated document in the world?

To illustrate the challenges—and solutions—of translating documents, let’s take a look at the most translated document in the world—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document has been translated into more than 500 languages since it was first published in 1948.

In the aftermath of World War II, a group of experts at the United Nations drafted a document outlining the basic rights and freedoms that every human being is entitled to. The document, which was later adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, includes 30 articles spelling out these rights.

How many languages has the UDHR been translated to?

The UDHR set a world record in 1999 for being the most translated document in the world. The United Nations says that its goal is “sharing it with the entire world.” That’s why they invite anyone to contribute a new translation that isn’t already in the collection.

Since this is an ongoing process, the best way to keep updated is to check the official page on this translation project. By the time this article is being written, there are 531 language versions of the UDHR. The latest translation was into Tumpoun/Tampuan, an indigenous language from Northeast Cambodia.

🗒 Resource » Listen to the UDHR in hundreds of languages.

The process of translating the UDHR

Whenever someone wants to add a new UDHR translation, they must first submit a request to the United Nations. A team of experts then reviews the request, and before accepting the translation, they make sure that certain criteria are met. Some of these criteria are:

  • There isn’t already a translation in that language.
  • The translation follows the structure of the original.
  • The translation is complete (i.e., all 30 articles have been translated).
  • The file is well-formatted either in Word, PDF, HTML, or another common file type.

If the translation meets these criteria, it is then added to the United Nations’ collection of official versions and made available to the public.

In addition, the UN has laid out some specific guidelines that translators should keep in mind when working on UN documents. These guidelines are meant to ensure that the translations are of high quality and remain faithful to the original text.

What we can learn from the translation of the UDHR

While the UDHR isn’t a business document, the process of translating it can teach us a lot about how to effectively translate documents. Here are some key lessons we can take away:

  • The process of translating documents consists of several steps, each of which must be carefully considered.
  • The format, layout, and graphics of a document must be taken into account when translating it.
  • Documents often contain specialized terminology that can be difficult to translate accurately.
  • Style guides and other resources can be helpful when translating documents.
  • Quality control is essential to ensuring that translated documents are accurate and useful.

How to translate a Word document?

Now that we’ve looked at some of the challenges involved in translating documents, let’s have a look at how to actually go about translating one. In this section, we’ll walk you through the process of translating a Word document step by step.

MS Word is one of the most commonly used word processing programs on the market. If you’ve been working on a document in a single language and want to translate it into another one, Word lets you do that to parts of your text or the whole document.

How to translate parts of a Word document

If you want to translate certain parts of your Word document, you can use a Word feature that automatically translates only a selected word or text block. It won’t touch any other parts of the document.

Let’s use the UDHR as an example. Article 1 reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Let’s say you have the whole declaration but want to translate only the section above.

This is all you need to do:

Open your Word document.

Scroll down the text section you want to translate and highlight it with your cursor. Under the Review tab at the top of the Word menu, look for the icon “Translate.”

How to translate a Word document: Translate drop-down menu | Phrase

Click on it and choose “Translate Selection” from the drop-down menu.

How to translate a document in Word: language selection or detection | Phrase

Since this is automatic translation, the output will most probably need to be checked for accuracy and adjusted for style. As an experiment, try to compare your translated fragment with the official German translation of UDHR’s Article 1.

To add the automatically translated text to your document, click “Insert” at the bottom of the right pane. The pane itself won’t let you make any changes inside its text boxes—it will only give you word meanings. You’ll only be able to edit the translated text once you’ve inserted it as described above.

How to translate a Word document: insert automatic translation | Phrase

How to translate a Word document at once?

You may want to translate a complete Word document automatically as well—just follow these steps:

Open the Word document you want to translate.

Go to the “Review” tab at the top of the Word menu. Look for the icon “Translate” and click on it. From the “Translate” drop-down menu choose “Translate Document.”

How to translate a Word document at once | Phrase

Word will open a new pane on the right-hand side of the screen, where you can let the program choose an auto-detected source language or select it yourself. Then you can define the one you want to translate to.

How to translate a Word document at once: language selection or detection | Phrase

Word will automatically create and open a new translated document that you can save as usual. Again, the machine translation output will likely require correction to be accurate and fully meet your quality criteria.

How to translate a document with Google Translate?

Google Translate has seen quite some progress since it announced the adoption of the Google Neural Machine Translation system (GNMT) in 2016. GNMT uses artificial neural networks— artificial intelligence (AI) inspired by the way humans learn—to bridge the gap between machine and human translation. However, a human touch is still necessary.

If you want to translate a document with Google Translate, open it directly in your browser and select the Documents tab. You can upload Word (DOCX) files, PowerPoint (PPTX) files, Excel (XLSX) files as well as PDF documents.

Adding a document for translation to Google Translate | Phrase