Why You Need a Pro – Not a Free Service – for PDF Translation

by Larry Pilotto

PDF (Portable Document Format) is a smart choice for cross-platform communications. PDFs are reliable, regardless of the hardware or software the reader is using. Given the widespread use of the PDF format, PDF translation is a growing need for many organizations.

If you just want to get the general point across, then proceeding with an automatic (or machine) translation of PDF files can help. Google Translate is a common example of a free machine translation service. A professional translation agency offers much more accuracy in terms of both terminology and translation, more robust technology, and technical design/formatting expertise. In return, the result is a high-quality translated PDF.

Technical and design expertise

An automated service does not adjust the layout or format in the translated PDF. A professional service should include a design team that specializes in working with translated documents. These expert designers are known as multilingual desktop publishers.

Multilingual desktop publishers have advanced technical, linguistic, and design expertise. Why is this important? Because PDFs are not source files. That means that they were created in another software program, such as Adobe InDesign or Microsoft Word, and then converted into a PDF. As a result, PDF translation requires more of a manual effort. The text needs to be extracted, translated, and replaced. Receiving native source files minimizes the amount of manual processing involved in PDF translation.

Working with native source files is better – and cheaper.

Working with translated text in an existing PDF is not easy. Fonts, copy length, text-wrapping, and other layout issues are common. Compared to English, some languages have text that runs longer, others have text that runs shorter, and some will read right to left versus left to right. Acrobat does not have the editing tools to make these types of adjustments easily. Sometimes, it’s possible to edit the PDF directly in Adobe Illustrator. Sometimes, it’s easier and less time-consuming to re-create the PDF. Exporting the PDF to a Word document is quick and easy, but it introduces a lot of unnecessary page/section/column breaks that need to be removed. The functionality of any auto-generated content is lost as well. Cross-references and Table of Contents can turn into plain text and won’t update automatically or hyperlink.

Getting started

Any PDF file must be unlocked, and not protected by a password. The first step in processing a PDF for translation is determining if the text is a scanned image or live text. A quick way to check if the text in your PDF is an image is by clicking and holding your mouse or trackpad while dragging over the text. If you see the text cursor and you’re able to highlight the text, this indicates that your PDF contains live text.


If the text in the PDF is a scanned image, the page(s) needs to be run through OCR (Optical Character Recognition). OCR is a process that converts scanned or handwritten text into a text-readable format for computers. It makes it possible to re-process the text, avoiding having to type it from scratch. The quality of the scanned PDF will impact how well the OCR process works.  

Preserving the layout and functionality

You’ll most likely want to retain as much of the formatting and functionality as possible. Formatting includes font properties, image placement, spacing, line breaks, paragraph breaks and more. Functionality includes features such as hyperlinked Table of Contents entries and cross-references. If functionality needs to be maintained, then a new native source file will need to be created. The native file format will depend on the type of document and what applications the client can work with. Word and InDesign are two popular choices to re-create source PDF layouts. The effort to re-create native source before translation saves time and money. The formatting and functionality of native files is maintained in the translation process. If preserving functionality is not an issue, it may be possible to edit the PDF directly in Illustrator, and skip the step of having to re-create the PDF in a native file format.

PDF translation

Now, we have good source content to translate, in the form of either clean OCR output or a native source file to translate. At this stage, human translators are essential to crafting accurate messages. Automatic machine translation services can mistranslate words, including regulatory, compliance and legal terms, and phrasing. These types of inaccurate translations can put your company, product, or team at risk. Professional linguists have the proper expertise and experience to recognize common misinterpretations that can occur.

Translators should ensure that the message is not just easy to understand for the end reader, but also regionally appropriate and accepted. Machine-generated translations are not necessarily specific to local regions, which may cause misunderstandings or even cultural offense if the text is not then edited by a professional. It’s important to remember that a free or automated service is not trained in local dialects or nuances.

A professional linguist lives and works in the target language’s region. So, you can be more confident that the translation is culturally and regionally specific. Translating for cultural specificity is a skill that requires years of training. For example, a word like “business”, can have four different translations in Swedish. There are distinctions for conducting business versus a business organization. Different languages also use different rules for sentence structure and grammar. Auto-generated translations may not detect these types of cultural and grammatical distinctions.

If you are translating text into several languages, a professional service is extremely helpful. Professional linguists ensure overall consistency across language versions, while also allowing for cultural specifics. The end result is much more than just a translation. You get text that is highly localized, using appropriate terminology and stylistic regional preferences. A professional can also create a regional glossary or “brand voice” specific to you and your audience. This can be useful for technical documents, manuals, product materials, and more. Finally, professional services also employ industry subject-matter experts, ensuring that the PDF translation is appropriate for both the industry, as well as the region.

It's worth it to use a professional service to translate your PDF!

In conclusion, using free and automated machine translation services simply do not compare to what professional translation services can offer. A free service isn’t truly “free” when you consider that you will also need a designer and a regional linguist in order to ensure professional results.

Ultimately, professional agencies provide greater value than a free service. With a professional service, you will receive a final, high-quality translated PDF that communicates the best message from you to your target audience.

Larry Pilotto

Chief Web Officer / Desktop Publishing Manager

"No two days are ever the same at Interpro. Every job has different technical requirements, deals with different source content, and is translated into different languages. The wide range of combinations these factors produce definitely keeps things interesting."