The 5-Step Process that Professional Translators Should Use

Jul 13, 2017

Content the 5 step process that professional translators should use

Like every profession, there are what are commonly called “best practices” in the translation industry. Part of these best practices includes a 5-step process that every reputable translator should use for every project.

  1. Getting the General Overview

The translator first must understand the client’s order and instruction details. The other part of the overview will be to give a first, cursory look at the original content of the piece, skimming it, in order to get a general idea of that content.

This skimming allows a translator to look for terminology that may need to be checked out more carefully, in order to provide an accurate translation. There may also be social/cultural aspects that will have to be discussed with the client.

  1. The Translation

The content is then translated, usually in small sections that reflect single ideas or concepts.  If there are complex sentence structures, these will need to be broken down. Word order may change in order to make the translation grammatically correct and meaningful in the target language.

There is no set rule for how many words should be translated in a set – this is determined by meaning and by the grammar requirements.

  1. Review for Accuracy

Once the first draft of a piece is translated, a professional translator will then go back and review it again, idea by idea, sentence by sentence, checking for accuracy. Specifics include:

  • Ensuring that no content has been missed
  • Ensuring that no content has been mis-interpreted
  • Ensuring that technical terms have been accurately translated
  • Improving upon any phrasing that appear unnatural in the target language
  1. Stepping Away

Translators know that it is wise to step away from a project for a period of time after the second review. This is no different than an author stepping away from a chapter of a book to clear his/her mind before having a final look at his work.

This retreat should last at least a few hours, possibly overnight.

  1. The Final Polish

The final reading occurs without any look at the original text/document. This reading is for soundness of style, flow, and naturalness. During this reading, the finishing touches will be made that provide a fully polished piece.

Is this a Universal Process?

The short answer is no. Translators who have had good education/training will always use it because its importance has been reinforced many times over. Taking shortcuts leads to errors and lower quality.

The process becomes second nature to professional translators, and they do not veer from it.

Unschooled translators will not intuitively use this 5-step process and usually skip steps 4 and 5. This leads to lower quality and errors in the final product.

Translating is a Complex Brain Activity

Translating is a lot more difficult than people not in the profession realize. There are brain processing function that are complex and must occur in a logical order:

  1. Translators must carefully read the original content and ensure they understand it. Some terminology may have to be researched
  2. As they begin to translate that content into the target language, they must divide the original into small chunks of words and select the most suitable words and phrases in the target language
  3. Be mindful of target language grammar and sentence structure as the translation occurs
  4. Make certain that the meaning is consistent and the wording natural

These four things occur simultaneously and involve several brain functions – it’s easy to concentrate on a couple of aspects of translation and make some errors in the others. For this reason, the 5-step process is in place – it allows the translator enough “passes” through the content to make certain it is correct.

And the lack of a 5-step process is exactly why machine translation is always flawed – it will translate a word, phrase or sentence that turns out to be incorrect in meaning or grammar and then never return to re-check what it has done.

Is Every Step in the Process Mandatory?

Yes. Think about when you were in college and you had to write a research paper. You write that first draft. Then, you must go back and conduct a review/edit of that. The first review and edit, you are probably looking for structural errors and glaring grammatical mistakes. You will probably miss some of the more minor things – punctuation, an incorrect citation format, etc. For this reason, it is always good to review and edit two times.

And all of this happens in your native language.

A translator has to be aware of all of the things that a normal review and edit entails plus be certain that, in the translation, vocabulary is accurate, awkward or clumsy phrasing is fixed, and the meaning remains the same.

Only by going through each of the five steps can all of this happen.

And inexperienced and unschooled translators don’t understand this. Instead, they conduct a translation, maybe perform a very cursory re-check and then considered their work finished.

There is a reason for the “down-time” that experienced translators build into their process. The brain needs a rest from the processes, so that it can return to the project refreshed, in order to provide the final check and polish. Only when the project involves a very short piece of content is the “rest” step ever skipped.

When Translations are Rushed, Quality Suffers

Sometimes, orders for translations come with an urgent deadline. A translator then has to decide which of the steps may have to be sacrificed. Usually, the “rest” step goes first, and then the polishing step.

When these steps are skipped, quality inevitably suffers, and this is especially dangerous when high quality is demanded.

If the translator is an independent freelancer, there is little that can be done to improve quality when jobs are rushed. S/he is the only “game in town.”

If, however, a rush job comes into a translation agency, and quality is critical, more than one translator can be assigned the project, each taking half of it at a natural break point. If both are equally well-trained and both go through the 5-step process, the final piece will have the quality that client wants and expects, though he will pay more for it.

Of course, the ideal situation is that clients anticipate their needs well in advance and provide enough time for the project to be completed by a single translator and a single reviewer. The cost will also be more reasonable.

What All of This Means for a Client

Professional translators get it. They understand the 5-step process and its importance for high quality.

Translators who are simply fluent in two or more languages but not trained in the process of translation will not intuitively go through all of these steps. Quality will always suffer.

Businesses and individuals who need the highest quality need to be certain that the translators they use have the training background to produce that quality. Translators who rush or skip steps miss things and make mistakes.

When the highest quality is demanded, clients of translation services need to make sure that an additional translator will be available to review the work of the first. When two separate eyes are on a translation, the highest quality if guaranteed.

To get those two sets of eyes, most will have to use the services of a translation firm. Individual translators who freelance for themselves do not generally have secondary reviewers.

If you want the highest quality, here are the requisites:

  • A trained translator who understands the five steps and uses them
  • Another trained translator who provides a final review