Microsoft Word logoGenerally, files in Microsoft Word are among the easiest for a translator to handle. The computer-aided-technology (CAT) tools that translators use to make their work more efficient and to create translation memories have always been capable of working with Word files directly. But there are some common practices—especially among inexperienced Word users—that can cause real problems during the translation process.

To understand why certain things can cause problems, you should first understand the basics of how CAT tools work.

How CAT tools look at Word files

The first thing a CAT tool does in preparing a document for translation is to go through the document text in order to separate it into translation units or TUs. These TUs are meant to be meaningful pieces of text, such as individual sentences, that the translator works on one at time, while still seeing the context. The translation that the translator enters for each TU is related to the source TU in a database—the translation memory—so that it can be called up again wherever that same TU shows up in the original.

CAT tools use various indicators to determine where the text should be broken into a separate TU. These indicators are usually end of sentence punctuation marks (period, question mark, exclamation point), but other things such as colons and line breaks will also indicate to the CAT tool that a TU has ended.

Here is where a number of formatting shortcuts can confuse the CAT tool and the translator.

How formatting shortcuts affect CAT tools (and translators)

Some of the shortcuts I’m going to talk about shouldn’t really be called “shortcuts.” For someone who is familiar with Word’s features, these shortcuts would take more time. But those who don’t use Word often may find these practices easier than trying to learn Word’s features on the fly.

  • Shortcut #1: Using multiple spaces or tabs to move text into the desired position

I’ve used multiple spaces and tabs used to indent text, to center text, to take the place of a single tab in a parallel list, or even to move text on to the next line. These multiple spaces and tabs will show along with their associated text in one TU: what is the translator to make of them? The purpose of the tabs and spaces may not be obvious,so the translator may just leave them where they fall in the translation. Because a string of text is almost never the same length in a different language, the formatting will be totally changed in the translated version. Or the translator may see the problem and fix it in the translation, but that takes time. Too much of that, and your translation may be delayed, plus your translation partner may want more money next time to compensate for time spent dealing with these issues.

Sample of a Word™ document with formatting showing: spaces and multiple tabs used to position text and line breaks used to move to next page

Sample of a Word™ document with formatting showing: spaces and multiple tabs used to position text and line breaks used to move to next page

Another issue comes up in analyzing repetition and match rates. Language partners usually charge less for repeated content or content that matches text already in a translation memory. But the CAT tool won’t recognize a repetition or match unless the text is exactly the same. Extra spaces and tabs for formatting may cause the same sentence to “look” different to the CAT tool.

Use the paragraph formatting options in Word to create indented paragraphs or hanging indents. Alter the margins to move whole blocks of text. Use tables to format information in columns. If it is necessary to use tabs, such as in a table of contents, set one tab to enter the page numbers in the correct position—don’t space or tab over until it looks lined up.

  • Shortcut #2: Using line breaks to split a sentence

Sometimes the text in a sentence or heading doesn’t wrap the way you would like. A common reaction to this is to insert a hard line break where you want the text to move to the next line. As far as the CAT tool is concerned, you have just created two TUs out of one idea. Again you may cause the same problems that extra spaces and tabs cause: possible confusion and extra work for the translator, rising fees to cover the wasted time, and a problem with analyzing repetition and match rates.

A soft line break (SHIFT + ENTER) won’t split the sentence into separate TUs, but it can cause any of the other problems we’ve already raised.

If you really must split your text at a particular place, try adjusting the margins on that paragraph or heading.

  • Shortcut #3: Using line breaks to move to the next page

Since, as we mentioned above, the text will be a different length in translation, the line breaks that you inserted to split pages will often just show up as blank space in the middle of a page in the translated document. Before you insert a page break, consider the reason:

  1. Is it the end of a chapter or section and you want a new section to start on the same page both in the original and in the translation?
  2. Is it because the text is breaking when you don’t want it to (e.g., a subheading is on the bottom of one page and the related text is on the next page)?

In the first case, you should simply insert a page break at the very end of the text where you want the split to come—no series of line breaks. In the second case, you should defer putting in the page breaks until after you submit the document for translation, or take out those page breaks before submitting it.

How to check your document before translation

It is quite common for more than one person to be involved in writing or editing a document. In these cases, someone who is adept at Word should check the document before it is sent for translation. You can do that by turning on “Show Formatting” (click on the ¶ icon on the home ribbon in the newer versions of Word or press (Ctrl + *). All the line breaks, spaces, and tabs will be visible and it is easy to scroll through the document to correct any problematic formatting.

Following these tips won’t just make the translation process quicker and avoid extra formatting charges, but it will also save you time when the document needs to be revised or is used as a template for a new document.

Our next blog post will have more tips about preparing Word documents that even experienced users may overlook.

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