The 5 step language translation process

There’s a very good reason professional translators stick like glue to this widely-accepted 5-step language translation process.

They know if they don’t …

… their translations won’t always be up to scratch.

The fact is, translating is a mentally demanding task.

So demanding, that a thorough and disciplined translation process is needed to perform it well.

If that surprises you, you’re not alone – it isn’t widely appreciated.

So let me explain. In this article I’ll cover:

  • the 5 steps in the accepted best practice translation process, and why each is needed
  • the inherent challenge with translation that makes such a strict process necessary
  • why each of the steps in the process is needed, and the pitfalls of not sticking to the process
  • what all this means if you want to be sure you’ll get translations of high quality.

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The multi-step language translation process professional translators use

Here is the best practice process that quality-focused translators and translation companies adopt.

Step 1: Overview

The first step is to scope out the text to be translated. That is, the subject matter and content, how long it is, the writing style, if it is technical, the various sections, etc.

The translator will typically read or skim read parts of the text to get a feel for the content.

He/she may note key concepts or terminology that will need to be researched, and will decide if any preliminary background reading is needed.

Sometimes the translations for key terms will be researched and resolved before beginning the translation.

Step 2: Initial translation

In this step the document is systematically translated, typically in chunks of 5 – 10 words at a time.

Choosing the appropriate length of individual text chunks to deal with is important. Ideally each chunk will be a discrete and complete unit of meaning.

But it also has to be short enough to be retained in short term memory, and anything over about 10 words can be a struggle. Sentences are frequently longer than this, so will typically be broken down into shorter units.

Working with chunks that are too short or not discrete meaning units tends to produce an unnatural and potentially unclear translation, whereas chunks that are too long to easily remember run the risk of some meaning being missed in the translation.

This last sentence for example might typically be split into 4 separate text chunks in the initial translation process.

Step 3: Accuracy check

After the first draft is completed, the translator will then methodically work through his/her translation comparing each chunk of text with the original (source) text.

The primary goal here is to confirm no content has been missed and no meaning misinterpreted.

Most translators will also identify and improve any slightly unnatural or inelegant wording in this step.

Step 4: Clear the mind

The next step is very simple – put the translation aside and take a break.

Ideally this should be for a few hours or overnight.

The idea is purely to clear the mind to ensure a more effective fifth and final step.

Step 5: Final polishing

In the final step the translator re-reads the translation, this time without reference to the source document, looking solely at quality of expression.

Final edits will be made to further refine and “polish” the translated text.

 

Summary pdf

5-step language translation process
You can download this free summary pdf of the translation process to keep for future reference.

Download the pdf

Do all translators follow this process?

In a word, no.

Professional translators learn this 5 step methodology as part of their tertiary translation studies.

Because it is drilled into them and they understand the need for it, they should automatically follow it and know not to take shortcuts.

For the professional translator this is just what you do, it’s just the way translations are done.

The same can’t be said of untrained translators though.

Basically without that formal translation training, it is unlikely someone would instinctively adopt these steps. Or even appreciate the need for them.

It’s no surprise then that untrained translators frequently use processes that not only aren’t best practice but also aren’t sufficiently robust and reliable to overcome the inherent difficulties in the translation process.

They are often blissfully unaware of the shortcomings in their translation processes and therefore the work they deliver.

Why is such a strict translation process necessary

Because translation is a surprisingly difficult task involving complex mental processing.

Language translation process
Translation is a surprisingly difficult task, so a robust language translation process is needed.

Specifically, for each phrase or section of text to be translated they need to:

  1. read and understand the source text
  2. keep the meaning or message of that text in mind
  3. select the most appropriate vocabulary in the target language
  4. use the grammatical structure of the target language
  5. compose that meaning/message in the target language
  6. make sure the new text is worded in a natural way

This turns out to be a lot for the human brain to handle all at once.

It’s difficult to both correctly convey all the meaning, and phrase it in natural sounding language all in one go.

Basically, you more or less have to concentrate on one aspect more than the other.

Now, if you concentrate more on correctly conveying all the meaning, your target language wording can often be a bit stilted and unnatural.

And if you concentrate on creating excellent wording, it’s easy to miss a nuance or component of the message in the translation.

Either way, the mentally demanding nature of the task means mistakes can quite easily be made.

That’s why a translation should never be considered completed after a single pass. It still needs thorough checking and revision to ensure nothing has been missed, and editing to make the wording natural and elegant.

The 5-step language translation process outlined here is designed precisely to achieve this and overcome these inherent complexities.

As an aside, the list of 6 components mentioned above is instructive in understanding why software (machine translation) programs don’t translate very well.

Often they’ll fail at step 1 by missing nuances of meaning, in which case the translation of that segment will be doomed from the start.

They can also struggle to select the most appropriate vocabulary – they’ll often pick a word or phrasing that is a possible translation but that a human wouldn’t see as a very good or the best choice.

And thirdly, natural wording consistently eludes these programs – they just don’t have the writing flair and quality of expression a talented translator will exhibit day in day out.

Are each of the steps in the process strictly necessary?

Absolutely.

As we’ve said, after the first attempt a translation will typically have some slightly clumsy or unnatural wording and some aspects of meaning may also have been missed.

This is due to the mental processing involved generally being too demanding for the translator to master both full accuracy and excellent expression in one go.

So the first pass produces only a draft.

Unfortunately, inexperienced and untrained translators often don’t appreciate this.

They generally don’t know about this best practice language translation process, or appreciate the need for it. As such, they can deliver their initial translation without realising it may well be of substandard quality.

Steps 3 and 5 are therefore vital to firstly ensure all source text meaning has been carried over into the translation and nothing has been missed, and then to “polish” the wording so it reads naturally and well in the target language.

The break in step 4 is sometimes omitted for shorter texts, but generally makes for a much more effective final review.

That’s because the initial translation (step 2) and checking process (step 3) both require considerable focus on the source text.

And after an extended period of intense concentration, this lingering focus can make it difficult for the translator to adjust and totally block out the source text to then assess the quality of his/her writing solely on its own merits.

A break clears the mind and lets the translator come back to the translation fresh and alert and better able to take a new and critical look at how clear and natural the translation wording is.
  

The effect of urgency/rushing on translation quality

If the project deadline is such that there isn’t enough time to complete all these language translation process steps, something has to give.

And that something is inevitably the quality control steps 3 to 5. The translator will be forced to rush, or even worse omit, the accuracy check and/or the final review of wording.

Urgent 2
The effect of rushing or excessive urgency is inevitably that translation quality will suffer

More generally, if a translator is feeling stressed due to time pressure, his/her translation quality is likely to drop away.

Precisely because translation requires complex mental processing, translators need to be sharp, focused and have a clear mind.

They need to block out extraneous thoughts and pressures.

The effect of rushing or excessive urgency is inevitably that the quality of the translation will suffer. It will be much more likely to contain errors and/or inaccuracies.

It may also have some sections where the wording isn’t particularly clear, natural or elegant.

If at all possible we strongly recommend allowing a little more time for the project so all steps in the language translation process can be completed. The end quality of the translation is likely to be much higher.

Summary and Conclusions

As we’ve seen, there is an accepted best practice language translation process that a translator needs to be follow to achieve a quality translation.

Missing or rushing any of the steps will almost inevitably affect quality, with the resultant translation likely to have some inaccuracies and/or unclear or somewhat clumsy wording.

This process is drilled into students of tertiary translation study programs, but isn’t instinctive, so a translator without specific training is unlikely to adopt it.

If translation quality is important, you therefore need a translator who is aware of, and follows, this recognised translation process.

Typically that means a professionally trained translator with solid experience.

Alternatively, engage a reputable translation company that uses translators of this calibre.

However we need to accept that even when this process is followed conscientiously, mistakes can still slip through. That’s because translators are human, and we all make mistakes occasionally.

To counter this, quality-focused translation companies such as ours will typically add in a further quality control process – a 6th step if you like – involving a review of the translation by a second translator.

The need for this process is spelled out (and actually specified as a requirement) in EN15038, the world’s leading translation Standard. And it is precisely what we offer with our quality-assured translations.

In contrast, very few individual translators will include any form of independent review.

Thus the highest assurance of quality requires:
– the right translator (trained and experienced)
– adherence to this 5-step language translation process
– a subsequent peer review

Woman at table image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
“Rush” image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Other articles that may be of interest:

– Your guide to expected translation turnaround times using professional human translators

– The 4 indispensable translation skills evey translator must have

– Two simple rules to help identify when a text needs to be translated by a specialist technical translator

 

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