It can easily be said that translating is yet another form of writing. As a Greek translator correctly points out in her blog, translators are not only translators. For translators, there always seems yet another task they need to fulfill. Summary translations are just one of those.

So what essentially is a summary translation and when would a potential client need one? In most cases, organizations with international operations are in a position to need a large volume of documents translated. This is particularly true of legal documents.

It is possible, say for a law firm to receive documentation for a litigation case from abroad. Often, such documentation can run into thousands of pages.

And, probably as in many cases, quite a number of these documents are not essential, at least initially.

But to make this assessment, the said firm would need to send these documents to a translation agency or service. In the end, the costs of such an exercise could be excessive.

To make a proper assessment and see what needs to be translated in full, such a client needs to resort to summary translations.

Gregory M. Shreve, one of the experts on the subject explains that “the summary translator must effectively integrate the component cognitive processes of both summarization and translation.”

As one of the translation service providers notes, summary translations “ allow the reader to understand the key points of the original document. It is not a word-for-word translation of the original.” Besides, large document volume situations, summary translations “are also used on a rolling basis when translations are needed in real-time.”

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Summary Translation for language localization

This post has been updated in October 2021. 

What is the difference with a full translation?

As professor Shreve, (above) points out, “Summary translation is a form of translation that is much more common in the federal government than in commercial environments, and so is rarely studied and generally ill-understood. While it involves many of the processes that emerge in the normal full translation task (verbatim translation in government parlance), because the final result of this cross-language task is a summary as well as a translation, the summary translator must effectively integrate the component cognitive processes of both summarization and translation.”

To some, this explanation might sound a bit too academic. In essence, though, it is a quite complex process.

A translator task here is to first understand completely the subject matter presented in the document at hand in its original language. Then he has to note down its key points and then translate those into the target language.

Translators can approach these tasks in two ways. One would be to translate the whole document into their target (usually native) language)and the other is to draw out the summary in the original language and then translate it.

Which way is more effective and efficient? Actually, as the scientists found out in a real-life experiment, it makes no big difference. The key lies in both the writing and translation skills of the translator who is working on the summary.

As the Greek colleague (above) points out, “summaries are all about comprehension. They focus on rephrasing, paraphrasing, retelling, restating, reconstructing the initial piece, and especially force us to be creative. They train the linguist to find ways to be more succinct by keeping all the essential stuff.”

How to work on a summary translation?

So a translator gets to do a summary of say, a two hundred-page document. His summary should be a maximum of five pages. To the uninitiated, this might seem like a much simpler, easier task. After all, five pages are but a fraction of two hundred pages.

If things were so simple, governments, courts, and businesses would be flooded with summary translations!

First of all, documents that are voluminous are often complex in their content at the same time. To be able to handle a summary translation job, a translator must be fully aware of two things. First is what the document is about and the second is, who is going to be his reader. Who is the end-client and why does he need this summary.

Answers to these questions will help a translator focus on what information he needs to extract from the document, how he needs to write it, but also how long the summary should be.

To be able to go through the process of completing a summary, the translator needs to be fully competent in three areas. First, of course, is full knowledge and comprehension of both the original and the target language.

Since in many cases documents that require a summary are complex and specialist, he needs to be fully competent in say, law, medicine or electronics. Thirdly, he needs to write well in the target language. He may be able to fully understand a document and extract its main ideas. But, if he is not able to transfer these ideas into understandable writing, his effort might not be for much.

Who needs summary translations and when?

In the world of summary translations, two words dominate – time and costs. Legal proceedings of any type usually involve volumes of documents and if all of those go through a process of full translation this could exceedingly long time and drive up costs.

The same is the case with complicated international contracts, say mergers or patent approvals.

As one translation service provider notes, “in complex international litigation, it is often economically infeasible to translate every foreign-language document contained in the file.” Often, “the client only needs to extract certain information from documents instead of submitting word-for-word translations.”

Summary Translation for content localization

In many cases, summary translations are labeled as drafts. In the case of international criminal courts, these drafts are then used as supporting material in any given case.

Another situation where summary translations are used is during inter-governmental visits, conferences and international organizations. This is often the case when time becomes an essential factor. The original document can be an official proposal, agreement official point of view. Also, it could be a press release or even a news article.

A head or a member of a delegation, or a negotiator needs to be aware of some facts or views while the discussions are still ongoing.

Still, the key point here remains that summary translations except in rare instances are not official documents. They are usually for the so-called in-house use and of timed and temporary nature. That, on the other hand, does not mean that they should be of lesser quality. On the contrary.

Most important words with summary translations – crafting and using them with care

Usually, court cases, litigations, mergers or political negotiations all involve sensitive matters. Some are of more general nature, some of a more personal one. Omitting a document completely or just a single fact can have serious consequences.

The same is the case with medical dossiers which for more sensitive patients can include quite a lot of information. Missing something important there is not an option.

To that effect, working on summary translations needs a lot of care and attention on the part of the translators. They have to have the knowledge of the target and the original language, as well as of the subject matter they are dealing with. They also have to make sure they do not omit any important facts and that everything they write down is clear and precise.

On the other hand, end-users of summary translations have to know exactly what they need these translations for. They also always have to bear in mind that they are not complete and full translations of the original documents and treat them as such.

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