This time around, we examine translation rules. Caught between celerity and the need for upholding quality standards, translation is a peculiar beast. We will come to appreciate that translation rules are important, no matter how urgently we may require a translation. We will also compile a set of translation rules at the end.

But if you prefer to watch a video instead, click here:

What is Translation?

Translation, as we know, is transforming text from a source language into a target language. The people who do this type of work are called translators. They are sometimes certified, though this is not a necessity.

Translation and interpretation (simultaneous, consecutive) are different things. Interpretation rules and translation rules are therefore two different things.

Major Problems in Translation Rules

When it comes to compiling a list of translation rules, there are a number of problems we need to be aware of.

Precision vs. Naturalness

Precision is all about keeping a great level of similarity between the original text and the translation. This is particularly important in technical texts such as legal contracts. A precise translation does not concern itself with how aesthetic or beautiful the phrases sound, but rather with preserving a tremendous level of detail between texts.

Naturalness, on the other hand, is about looking for beauty in the translation. This quality is sought after in cases of literary translation or in localization. In literary translations a skilled translator must make sure that the intent and aesthetic of an author shines through. In the case of localization, a translator must render content that a discerning audience will find interesting and agreeable.

There are no hard and fast translation rules regarding precision and naturalness. Sometimes a translation will call for extreme precision. Other times, it will demand naturalness above everything else.

Having said this, however, we are partial to the idea of precise translations. Precision is usually the best policy. Making the translation beautiful is fine, but this should be secondary to making it as precise as possible. If a client explicitly authorizes dismissing precision in some degree, for a more pleasant-reading experience, then this may be provided.

To Polish or Not to Polish

Occasionally a text (in the source language) is very flawed: grammatical errors, extremely long paragraphs, poor construction and generally bad writing. Should a translator attempt to polish the original text, so that the translation turns out better?

There are arguments in favor of this approach. It is true that a terribly written original makes life very complicated for a translator. The translated text will read poorly and the whole process of translation is clumsy and convoluted. Some translators argue that it is best to polish the original and make the whole process run smoothly.

Other translators, however, think that polishing the original text is a bad idea. First, they point out that it is not the job of a translator to worry about the text itself. A translator’s job, they would say, is merely to translate whatever they are provided with. Secondly, polishing an original text will simply demand too much time from a translator.

It is our opinion that polishing an original text should not be considered a part of translation rules. Polishing is simply too cumbersome and problematic for a translator.

CAT Tools: Worth it?

CAT stands for Computer Assisted Translation or Computer Aided Translation. These tools are very useful for a translator and may help out in several areas:

  • Translation Memory: This compiles a memory of phrases/segments to be used later by a translator. When a specific segment/phrase reappears, the translation memory suggests the phrase in the translation memory.
  • Glossary: A translator may compile a list of words, along with their translation. This glossary works like a translation memory, although the process is more intentional.
  • Layout: CAT tools preserve original layouts, including fonts, colors and diagrams.

language translation rules you need

Some translators point out that CAT tools maintain a level of uniformity and are particularly useful when localizing content (preserving glossaries of slang words, for instance). Also, large projects may be more efficiently tackled by teams of translators who share glossaries and translation memories.

In our opinion, the use of CAT tools should not be mandatory and thus should not be a part of a list of translation rules. A skilled translator may very well provide great translations and results without them. As always, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’: if the translation is excellent, there is no need to inquire if it was created with or without CAT tools.

Translation Rules in Localization?

Localization means taking content and making it suitable for a local audience. This often involves translating content and then localizing it to a particular demographic or national/regional audience.

Translation rules must account for this situation, where there is translation + localization. There are some pointers and questions that we believe are crucial:

  • Degree of Localization: What will the degree of localization be? This degree will dictate how much precision a translation may maintain or how much naturalness it will need.
  • ‘Airbrushing’: ‘Airbrushing’ refers to localization which is too cosmetic and superficial, and thus pointless. Imagine, for example, a commercial for a multinational, written in the United States. The company decides they want to air this same commercial in Latin America, with the same copy and message. They thus translate the script and dub it completely. Is this the right approach? Hardly. This would be an example of ‘airbrushing’ and it will not do. A better approach is taking the original script, translating it, localizing the copy for each region/country and then re-shooting the commercial with Spanish-speaking actors.

Translation Procedure for Translation Rules

There is a procedure to translation, dictated by experience, which will help us discover translation rules:


The first step is translating, pure and simple. Getting a rough translation draft out as fast as possible is key.

Here, the rule (as explored earlier) is to try to maintain as much precision as possible. Only if the content allows it, then a translator may try to experiment with more naturalness. Such could be the case in certain localization attempts.


This is a crucial step in translation and necessarily included in translation rules. The most debilitating error a translator can make is to miss segments/phrases.

To avoid this, a revision is necessary. Such a revision may be carried out after the translation (as a sort of second read-through and comparison). The problem with this is that it demands too much time from a translator.

An alternative, therefore, is that translators revise as they translate the original. This sounds complicated but can be quite simple. The translators may (a) be translating the original and be mindful that they are including everything or (b) if they are using CAT tools, they can be checking each segment as they translate it.

In any case, and whatever the method may be, revision is key in translation and thus a part of translation rules.

Read-through / Proofreading

Another important step in translation is the final read-through of the document. This ensures that there are no errors.

As with the revision procedure explained above, a read-through takes too much time. What a translator may do is apply such a read-through, or a version thereof, as they translate, much like in the previous example.

Therefore, translators may (a) translate, make sure it is all there and reads well as they go through the document or (b) do such an operation as they go through each segment and phrase with a CAT tool.

Keeping the Original Layout

Another part of translation procedure, and therefore of translation rules, is layout preservation. A translator must strive to maintain the basics of the original document as much as possible. This includes: colors, graphs, lettering, fonts, paging, margin spaces etc.

Spell Check

A simple part of translation rules is making sure the grammar and spelling are correct. This point, simple as it is, is often disregarded. A simple typo may very well lower the esteem that the translation commands on a reader.

The Essence of Translation Rules: A Summary

Having looked at the issue, we could compile a list of translation rules, as follows:

1. Proof of Ability If Not Certified

A translator need not be certified if language ability may be demonstrated in some other way (experience, samples, portfolio, and tests).

2. Precision over Naturalness (generally speaking)

In general, precision should be preferred over naturalness. In the case of translation + localization, there may be a possibility to attempt more naturalness.

rules for translating in any language

3. Agile but not careless translations

When translating, it is important to get a rough draft translated fast. It is imperative, however, to be agile but not careless: a rough draft with too many errors will require corrections and, therefore, too much time, later on.

4. Revision and Proofreading Flexible

A revision procedure (any sort of procedure) should be instituted by a translator. The idea is simply to have a document that is both complete and reads well. A translator must develop a system or process to provide this peace of mind.

5. CAT tools optional

CAT tools, as we saw earlier, are useful. Their use, regardless, should not be a part of translation rules. A savvy translator may provide a good translation without them, and that is perfectly fine. Translation, at the end of the day, should be measured by its results.

6. Do not Polish the Original Text in the Source Language

Polishing an original text takes too much time. A translator should get on with the task of translating and not tamper with original material, in an attempt to correct the mistakes made by a client.

7. Localization Awareness

When translating and localizing, two things are important: degree of localization and avoiding airbrushing. The first will dictate how much to localize and the latter is a reminder not to localize superficially.

8. Maintaining Layouts

Original layouts must be preserved, unless instructed otherwise by the client.

9. Spell Check!

A translator must run a spelling and grammar check on the finished document. Many good translations suffer from minute mistakes which are easily corrected.