In order to fully understand how translation works, we first need to define all of our important terms.
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What is content?
Merriam-Webster defines “content” as “the topics or matter treated in a written work.” When you read this definition, you would be forgiven if you immediately conjure up a mental image of a dusty old book with pages covered in faded walls of text.
Considering that our modern world is filled to the brim with content in hundreds of forms from thousands of different sources, limiting the definition of content to only that of traditional written work seems unnecessarily narrow-minded. In the internet age, everything from the “written work” on a website page to the “written work” in snippets of video game tooltips is considered content. For our purposes here, work spoken aloud, such as in a movie or a dubbed version of a game, also counts as content.
What is content localization?
When you have a finished product, whether it is a movie, a game, a website, an ebook, a cell phone app, or any other piece of content, your end goal is likely to get that product into the hands of as many end-users as possible. After all, your product doesn’t help your customers or earn you any income if it sits un-discovered on your computer hard drive.
But before you can list your product for sale or download in worldwide markets, first you have to tackle the process of localization. Localization of content is what happens when you get your final product prepared for users in any part of the world to understand and enjoy your content, even if they speak another language and live in an entirely different culture than the one in which your content was created.
Content translation is a part of that process, under the wider umbrella of localization.
What is content translation?
Often the largest barrier you must overcome before your product is ready for worldwide distribution is the fact that your content is (for now) available in only one language.
Content translation, therefore, is the process by which a translator converts content (in some form) from one language into another.
If a film-maker wants to market an American-made movie in Spain, for example, he would need to convert the script, subtitles, and any voice-acted dubs into Spanish before the movie’s European debut. Similarly, a Canadian ebook writer might want to ensure that her books are available in both English and French before she publishes either version on a sales platform.
As a producer of content, you need to understand how translation works before you can go about the process of localizing your content for distribution around the world. Though it can sound intimidating for first-time content distributors, translation is a vital step toward promoting your brand around the world in such a way that it will be positively received.
Why is it better to have a professional translator translate your content, rather than relying on computer-generated translations?
At the most basic level, translation happens word by word or sentence by sentence. For example, most people could type the word “dog” into Google Translate and easily substitute the word “Hund” in their brief caption of a puppy photo on a German website. For small, simple tasks like this, you can likely get away with taking the easy route.
Even lone sentences are unlikely to be a huge problem. With the task of, say, translating one-sentence descriptions en masse for a photo recognition project, you can probably power through it by using Google Translate and trusting in your common sense to catch the most glaring and unforgivable mistakes.
After all, when one click turns “She is sitting in the library” into “Ella esta sentada en la biblioteca,” it’s hard not to take advantage of that simplicity.
The problem with this technique occurs when you have longer documents or a piece of content that relies on subtlety, specific word choice, and delicate context to convey its meaning.
Try feeding a multi-paragraph document into Google Translate. Convert it into another language and then back to your native language, and see what happens. Likely, you’ll notice more than a few awkward-sounding mistakes.
That’s because, while computers are great at understanding word-by-word translations (i.e. what “dog” means in another language), they don’t have the human touch needed to make sense of context, idioms, local phrasing, good word choice, and other things only people would know how to do.
A professional human translator, on the other hand, specializes in knowing exactly the right words to pick in order to preserve the content’s original depth and meaning. He or she will take care to read through the whole piece several times and translate the context of the piece as a whole rather than go piecemeal word-by-word and hope it comes out sounding coherent.
What are the steps of the translation process that professionals follow?
Quality control must be high for translators, since often their client won’t know if a translation has been poorly done unless the client also speaks the destination language. Therefore, human translators use specific, tried-and-true methods to make their translated content sound smooth and natural in the new language.
You can ask your translator to walk you through their translation process briefly before you make a final job offer. Expect to hear them say something along these lines:
1. Understand the content.
The first thing your translator will need to do is read the content. It seems so simple and obvious, and yet some clients who do not understand how translation works often expect a translator to sit down with a copy and churn out a perfect translation in the time it takes someone to read and understand the initial piece. Don’t urge your translator to skip this step; it’s a vital one. He or she will be reading, making a note of the context and tone of your content, and researching any unfamiliar terms or concepts so the final translation will be accurate and hold true to the piece’s original meaning.
2. Do the initial translation.
This step is the only part of the process that is similar to the computer-generated, Google Translate method. Here, the translator will take words, phrases, or “chunks” of text and convert them from the initial language into the new one. Because he or she has already read the content and has a good idea of the context in which each sentence should be translated, your translator is likely to make good word choices right off the bat and reduce the need for edits and corrections later down the line.
3. Go over the translated work and make adjustments.
Your translator will re-read both the source copy and their translated copy, so any discrepancies or mistakes will stick out and be corrected in this step. Their thoroughness here pays off for you, because good proofreading ensures you are less likely to ship a product with mistranslated words or other mistakes.
4. Take a break, come back to the work with fresh eyes, and then do further refinement.
After a few hours or a night off from working on the project, your translator will have a freshly rested brain that will pick up on any other mistakes that may have slipped through the cracks. In addition to catching errors, your translator will focus on polishing the translated copy into its own, natural-sounding standalone version of the content, as opposed to something that still relies heavily on the source document for context.
Once this final step is finished, your content should be polished up and ready for further proofreaders and beta-readers to take a look.
For a much more in-depth look at everything a professional human translator can do for you, check out this explanation.
What should you do, as a content creator and distributor, to make sure your content translations are of the highest quality?
The best move you can make, before you do anything else toward your content localization strategy, is to research and hire a high-quality translator. What you spend in higher rates for a better quality translator, you will save tenfold without having to worry about frustrating setbacks, needless errors, and the worry that the end result will not be up to the strict standards you hold for your product.
Even when you’ve hired the best translator for the job, you shouldn’t stop there. Always have native speakers of the destination language act as proofreaders and beta-readers. They should comb through your content and point out anything that seems clumsily worded or unnatural in the new language.
Even the best translators occasionally make mistakes or fail to choose a word that would have made more sense in the overall context of the piece.
Have your beta-readers watch out for:
- Direct translation of idioms that may not make sense in the destination language
- Proper nouns that should remain in their original forms
- Synonyms and words that may make more sense in a given sentence
Always encourage them to use their intuition and point out when something just doesn’t sound quite right, even if it’s not immediately apparent why. Often, these “technically correct, but still somehow off” gut reactions are the same gut reactions your end-users will have if you ship your product in its current state.
Let’s discuss an example of a problem with synonyms.
Imagine that you are a game developer having your game translated into a few different languages before its official release. The translations are finished, and technically they all make sense.
Because your product is a video game, there is some room for creativity with item names. As such, what sticks out to one person as odd may slip right past someone else who isn’t as familiar with video game item naming schemes.
If you have a piece of equipment titled “Green Boots of the Forest,” a direct translation would only need to convert that small chunk of text into the new language. Without much added context, a translator could easily make the mistake of choosing the wrong synonym for the job.
She might write the equivalent of “Naive Footwear of the Jungle” in the destination language and then move on to the next item.
Your end-users of the new language might think this was the intended item name. They might form the opinion that you have strange naming conventions in your game, rather than assume that someone mistranslated the item.
An experienced beta-player, however, would instantly notice that this item sticks out from the others and doesn’t make much sense within the context of the rest of the game.
Take the first step.
Once you decide on a translation plan that works for you, you can get started putting that plan into action! Remember to hire a quality translator and a few great beta readers. Then you can relax and rest assured that your content will soon find its way into the hands of people all over the world!