Document Translation and translation are most commonly used as interchangeable terms. Why? Everything that we read, watch or listen to on the internet can be thought of as a document, for example. A document is thought of as “(…) a written, drawn, presented, or memorialized representation of thought.” Sounds like pretty much anything, right? The progressive dematerialization of our documents makes what used to be a simple term more inclusive of other mediums.
Of course, the word “document” used to refer to any written means through which knowledge was inscribed. From papyruses to stone tablets, documents carried immense value. They used to be the only way— other than orally — in which thought or history could be passed down.
Formally written documents are also a central part of the legal process. They comprise legally binding written records that serve as material or evidence in proceedings. They are also called legal instruments.
So, where does that leave document translation, if we want to be precise?
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This post was updated in May 2021
Document translation in a nutshell
For the sake of definition, we will narrow down our definition to the written, classical form of document translation. This process entails converting what’s written in one language (the source) to another (the target). Easy enough, right? You may want to check our guide here to get more information about the nuances of translation.
Document translation can include a vast number of subdivisions. Some translators are specialized in just one which requires a special kind of certification; others can ply their trade in two or more subdivisions. The most common types of translation have been clearly defined in this article using the Cultures Connection framework:
- Technical translation
- Scientific translation
- Financial Translation
- Legal Translation
- Judicial Translation
- Juridical Translation
- Certified Translation
- Literary Translation
Of course, there are many others, and areas of document translation can also overlap. Some areas (like legal and medical documents) may require a form of certification too. Government or international translations may require an Apostille certificate to be valid overseas. Just to be sure, always check that the professional translating your documents is certified if your docs require it. Most translations don’t, but always check on a case-by-case basis.
Let’s dive a little deeper into what every subtype entails and what type of translatable material they produce.
This specialized document translation involves the production of technical writers. It deals with source texts related to the technical and practical application of scientific knowledge. This means it has its own rules concerning the application and accessibility of language; technical jargon and specific terminology have a more prominent role here. Maintaining a consistent terminology throughout a technical text is key to avoid confusion.
You don’t want two different terms used for the same thing in an owner’s manual, for example!
This field of translation has been recognized and studied since at least the 1960s. It relied more on literal translation than other fields, but that has slowly evolved. Translating key technical terms remains a priority, but the inclusion of more natural-sounding language is now fostered. This is also due to the growing interplay between translation disciplines.
The formulaic, predictable nature of technical writing also makes machine translation a fitting tool for technical translators.
Common uses are:
- Manuals, User Guides
- Practical tech application
- Specialized texts
- Accessibility for laypeople
Document translation of this type necessitates a high degree of specific knowledge in scientific fields. We’re talking about medical, biological or social sciences, so they run the gamut of academic disciplines. That means text will have a wide variety of “flavors” that could go virtually anywhere. As there is a huge difference between a research paper in biology and one in sociology, variation is expected!
Linguistic skills and familiarity with scientific disciplines are de rigueur here. The complexity of the source material usually necessitates it, and any mistakes can be especially egregious. Medical translation, for example, can be thought of like a combination of the scientific and technical branches. Any mistakes could potentially be disastrous.
Common uses are:
- Research Materials
- Academic texts
- Specialized publications
Financial translation requires a keen understanding of the details of the market economy and financial terminology. While there’s no need for certification, it can certainly come in handy. Any mistake in these translations could potentially incur heavy losses for the recipients.
Also, a translator has to have a keen eye for detail and know about potential formatting differences between documents. For example, a payslip may be different in two countries. Therefore, the translation may have to go beyond mere words and happen cross-culturally. This applies to changes in financial terminology and current exchanges too.
Common uses are:
- Tax Reports
- Meeting minutes
- Insurance documents
- Balance Reports
Law is a very culturally-dependent field. This means that a translator needs to be versed not only in language but in the minutiae of local Law. As anyone who’s tried to read a Lawbook will attest to, regulations can be pretty draconian. Latin can help with this issue, although it’s not always possible to use it. Knowing the differences between source and target cultures become as important as in any of the above fields. For example, Anglo-American common law is not the same as Islamic Law.
When it comes to legal document translation, there’s often certification required. Documents often need to have the proper seals and signatures to ensure their legality as contracts. This ensures that a text is legally operative. “Convenience translation” is the name for non-legally binding texts.
Common uses are:
- Agreements and corporate documents
- Personal ID and certificates (when people move abroad)
- Manuals and public documents related to the Law
- Court documents
- Immigration documents
- Legal ruling reports
- Patents and trademark filings
This is a translation “sub-subtype”. Any document translation in this field pertains to court proceedings. This includes many of the above examples such as IDs, birth or marriage certificates, sentences, property deeds, etc.
Certified document translation
In the United States, a translator gives their work a personal seal of approval. The ATA (American Translators Association) does not require any special kind of certification. This also enables a translator (or translation company) to verify translations done by freelancers. What happens if a pro cannot offer their own verification? No problem! An external verification, such as by an outsourcing platform or agency ensures the quality and legally-binding nature of the work.
The ATA also has this to say about the need for certified translations:
“Clients may need certified translations for many reasons. Procedures with government entities (e.g. applying for a visa, obtaining a driver’s license, claiming public benefits) often require certified translations. Similarly, legal proceedings, both civil (e.g. adoption, divorce) and criminal, may demand certified translations.
Educational institutions also require foreign candidates to submit certified translations of application documents (e.g. diplomas, transcripts.)”
Keep in mind that not all countries share the same regulations regarding translation. Some are very stringent about certification. This means that translators need to be certified by a state (or equivalent) organism. Only translators with that level of certification may be able to do certain jobs. Some examples include working in the government, technical or scientific fields. For instance, State-regulated qualification is mandatory in most European countries outside of the UK.
If you want to avoid running into unintended consequences, it helps to have an understanding of where a translation is for! Having to get a costly signature or certified seal after the fact is going set you back a few bucks!
This is one of the most “visible” translation types out there. Think about any big-name translated book you’ve read in the past few years. That’s a literary translation at work; it basically means translating prose or poetry into the target language. It’s also one the oldest translation subtypes we can think of — the Oxford History of Literary Translation is a titanic five volumes!
Literary translation poses its own set of challenges. The meaning behind art and individual expression are not as clear-cut as in other documents. Creative translators will help preserve the original spirit and intent behind words. That’s because a literal translation is not good at preserving the intended atmosphere of a literary piece. The translator must take care to understand the original and preserve its voice.
Literary translation is one of the disciplines where the practice of localization is most needed. Turns out, it’s impossible to translate certain puns, jokes or plays on words; this means making changes to adapt them into the target culture. A translator must exercise judgment to know whether to keep something or change it. This can only come with in-depth knowledge of the source and target languages and cultures.
Daniel Hann, director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, shares his thoughts:
“There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative. Anything that is, itself, a ‘linguistic’ quality will by definition be anchored in a particular language — whether it’s an idiom, ambiguity, or assonance. All languages are different.”
Final thoughts about document translation
Document translation is a varied and complex subject with many facets. In our media-inundated society, an abundance of gadgets records and immortalize our lives. Their expanding contributions, as well as that of the digital age, have contributed to the emergence of more document types. These are evolving our collective vocabulary about what fits into the translation sphere. Streaming video, websites, podcasts and all of the types of audiovisual media that flood the market every day.
This growing palette challenges our understanding and encourages us to change with the times. We hope this has been a satisfying insight into the state of document translation.
We’re hoping you’ll stay with us on the way to finding out what it will become.
Want to remove the guesswork? Submit a project and hire a Bunny Studio translator today!