Common Translation Problems & How to Overcome Them

by Shu Ni Lim Shu Ni Lim 10 minutes to read

Many companies want to expand their business to foreign markets, but it's a bumpy road with many translation problems along the way.

One of the toughest challenges they face is translating content for these new markets without compromising quality or getting frustrated with the process.

Before your company ventures onto the global stage, let's look at 5 common translation challenges and how you can overcome them.

Overview

  1. Linguistic & Cultural Differences
  2. Expensive & Time-Consuming Process
  3. Underutilized Translation Resources
  4. Machine Translation Dilemma
  5. Design & Formatting Issues

Translation Problem 1: Linguistic and Cultural Differences

Translation demands a deep understanding of the grammatical structures in both the source and target language. That’s a given.

More importantly, it also demands sensitivity towards differences in meaning and culture, which influences how a native speaker would perceive your brand.

From my own experience in translating copies from English to Chinese, there are many expressions that I simply can’t translate directly.

For example, English speakers would say "speak of the devil" when a person appears right after being mentioned. This expression doesn’t quite hold if I translated to Chinese exactly as it is.

Instead, the way I would say it in Chinese corresponds to "speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives." This makes little sense to the average English speaker because they don’t know the historical reference of this expression like most Chinese speakers do.

This example shows how two languages can approach the same topic or situation from different perspectives. The challenge of translation is to find a common thread between them when it comes to

  • Words with no correspondents in the target language
  • Idioms and figure of speech
  • Cultural references
  • Humor and sarcasm

Professional translators could spend hours getting these right, and they might still need the opinion of a native copywriter in the end.

In other words, each language is filled with unique quirks and perspectives that cannot be readily translated into other languages. Therefore, this translation problem is both a cultural and grammatical puzzle.

Solution: Simplify the text and enlist the help of a native speaker

Before translating a text, identify and remove any idioms, colloquialisms, and cultural references that are difficult to transfer to the target language.

If an idea can be expressed in plain language, keep it that way. Removing these tricky elements helps you to avoid spending more time and money on the translation than necessary.

Once the text is simplified, get someone who possesses native or bilingual fluency in both languages to help with the translation. On one hand, you may try to outsource the job to freelancers on online marketplaces like ProZ and Upwork.

On the other hand, you can just get help from a team member, a business partner, or even a friend who is fluent in the target language. Sometimes it’s not perfect grammar that will make or break a translation, but that je ne sais quoi which only a fluent speaker can point out instinctively.

To put it simply, when your source text is simple and straightforward, translating it becomes much easier, faster, and more affordable.

Translation Problem 2: Expensive and Time-Consuming Process

Hiring a translator takes both time and money that you could otherwise use to grow your business in other ways.

You might spend hours looking for the right translator or agency for the job. Then, you need to pay them and wait for them to complete the translation.

In the end, you still need to review the copy to make sure the right terminologies were used, because the translator may not be familiar with your line of business.

Some companies will try to cut translation costs by going for the cheapest, fastest option they can find on online marketplaces. However, they risk getting a mediocre or low-quality translation, which costs even more to fix or redo.

The bottom line is that you usually have to pay more for high-quality translations done by professional translators. And even the most experienced translators would have a long turnaround time (up to 7 working days) because translation in itself is a mentally demanding task.

Solution: Find someone with expertise and experience (within your network)

High-quality translations take knowledge and experience. They could be done by a certified translator, which is obviously the more expensive option, or they could come from someone who possesses multilingual fluency.

If your business has a global presence, chances are you can readily find this multilingual person within your network. When localizing for new markets, you would already be in touch with local distributors, dealers, and their marketing teams.

These are the people who know the target audience and their language well. There are two ways you can collaborate with them to maximize your localization efficiency.

One, you can upload your content onto a translation management platform, then invite your overseas business partners to translate it for you.

A major advantage besides cost savings here is that your distributor or dealer would already be familiar with the commonly used terminologies in your industry. This helps in maintaining a consistent voice in all your localized content.

Alternatively, you may also hire two or more external vendors with the lowest prices to translate the same content. Then, you can send their translations to your overseas business partners for reviewing and editing if necessary.

Either way, you avoid incurring high translation costs from professional translators, which easily goes up to $150 per 1k words depending on the language pair.

Nevertheless, it's important to remember that translation problems do not always stem from the quality of the translator themselves, but rather the process of translating. It signals an underlying issue with workflow efficiency, which brings us to our next point.

Translation Problem 3: Underutilized Translation Resources

While localizing new content, you might encounter situations where you get a sense of déjà vu.

You're pretty sure you've translated a particular segment before, but you can't remember where off the top of your head.

The next possible step is to comb through your previous projects to find the translation. Best case scenario, it's stashed somewhere in a long-forgotten archive. Worst case scenario, the file no longer exists.

If that happens, you might just choose to translate the segment all over again, but it might be inconsistent with how it was translated last time.

Moreover, translating something that you have already translated before isn't the most effective use of time and money, especially if you outsource the job.

Without proper backup and automation, your translation workflow that involves repetitive or similar content may look like this:

translation problem represented by a complicated workflow when searching for past translations to refer in new projects

 

The retrieval process creates a break in the process, where one is not actually focused on translating the content, but rather searching for information.

Even if one can recall where they’ve translated a text before, most of us don't have a computer's speed and precision in pulling up the specific file instantly.

Solution: Use a translation software to store and access past work

The secret of the trade is having a good translation software, which in itself contains several features to ease your workflow.

One of them is Translation Memories, which is a kind of repository integrated within the software.

If your company has translated some content before, you are sitting on a gold mine of translation data you can keep reusing. However, most businesses underutilize this valuable resource.

With translation memories, the idea is to consolidate all your completed and approved translations in a digital database.

Whenever you translate new content that contains similar or repeated text from earlier projects, the software automatically finds them and pulls up the past translation as a suggestion.

As seen below, the translation workflow is much more linear and straightforward with a translation tool:

translation problem is solved with the use of a translation software that allows person to look up and refer to past translations easily

 

 

If you want to read more, here is a detailed guide about how translation memories impact your translation workflow.

It’s a more seamless and intuitive way to manage, access, and use your existing translation data the minute you need it.

Marketing firms that create catalogs and social media copies find this especially useful because the content usually contains repeated information with minor changes.

For a more detailed explanation, check out our article on how translation memories work.

Translation Problem 4: Machine Translation Dilemma

Translation is a long, arduous process.

And like writers, translators run into a mental block every now and then, where nothing sounds right and they just want to flip tables.

Apart from being mentally exhausting, it could also cause delays in meeting project goals and deadlines.

In these cases, machine translation tools like Google Translate may provide some relief for someone who is experiencing a translator's block. They offer suggestions on how one could translate a particular segment.

Some people also use machine translations directly when the correct way to translate a segment is so obvious that even the AI can get it right. It saves them the time and effort from having to put the translation into writing themselves because they can simply use what the AI can instantly generate.

However, the problem is that many businesses shy away from using machine translations at all because they perceive them to be inaccurate and inconsistent - nowhere close to resembling natural human language.

And thus, we run into the age-old dilemma of “It’s free and convenient, but it kinda sucks. Should I use it?”

Solution: Use machine translation as a supplement rather than a replacement

Machine translation is technically another underutilized resource because people tend to avoid it altogether for the sake of “quality.”

The fundamental problem with this approach is the assumption that machine translation is here to replace human work. It’s not.

However, it can serve as a support for faster and cheaper translations. Think of it as scaffolding - it may not be nice to look at, but it offers a solid foundation you can build on.

Machine translations are not perfect, but they can provide either the context, the basic grammatical structures, or both in the target language.

Here, the time spent on proofreading and editing the machine translation would be significantly less than getting someone to translate from scratch. It also costs way less than hiring a certified translator.

Therefore, many professional translation software like Redokun provide built-in machine translation services. Like translation memories, these AI-generated translations appear as suggestions when the user is translating a document using the software’s editor.

simplified translation workflow when using machine translation

Click here to learn more about machine translation, and find out who are Google’s biggest competitors in the translation industry.

Translation Problem 5: Design and Formatting Issues

Another translation problem relates to the document layout. When translating an InDesign file or Word document, you may encounter challenges in preserving the formatting and design elements for subsequent distribution.

The reason could be that the original document is poorly structured. Some structural issues that slow down the translation process include

  • Paragraphs that are divided into multiple text boxes instead of one
  • Rasterized text that behaves like an image and can no longer be edited
  • Missing fonts and special characters
  • Hidden characters
  • Wrong file formats that your software cannot process directly (the most common one being a PDF file; read our full writeup here on how to translate a PDF correctly)

There are also structural issues that arise from the language itself rather than the document. For example, the English writing system that runs from left to right. However, some languages like Arabic run from right to left.

The difference in direction means that the text often needs to be manually re-formatted when translating from English to Arabic.

Overall, you would be doing a lot of manual typing and copy-pasting work to transfer the translated text to a clean template.

Solution: Optimize the document for translation, then use a translation software

Optimization here refers to organizing and formatting your text in a way that can be easily processed by a person or a software later on.

For example, businesses often use a software called InDesign to create their catalogs, brochures, and other assets.

InDesign documents can be quite tricky to translate if they are poorly structured by the original creator. This issue significantly increases the amount of work it takes to localize content, so much so that we even wrote a free e-book to help people optimize InDesign files for translation.

Even simple Microsoft Word documents can be optimized for translation. And yes, we do have an article about that as well!

If your company or your partners use these programs regularly, be sure to check out these free resources!

Once you have a well-structured document, the next step is to translate it using a dedicated translation software such as Redokun. The software you need should have a workflow automation feature that maintains the document formatting for you (besides InDesign, check out how to translate Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations the right way).

Basically, after a translation is complete, the software automatically converts all the data into the same layout as the original document. This is especially useful for eliminating redundant work when translating the same document into several languages.

We've compiled a list of the top translation software for businesses in 2021. Learn more.

Summary

The goal of any global business is always to translate content for new audiences in a way that

  • maintains the brand voice and content quality
  • resonates with the target demographic
  • makes the best use of time and financial resources

Traditionally, achieving one of the goals above meant sacrificing another, but new translation technologies have made it possible to maximize efficiency on all three fronts.

To help your business achieve this, here's a handy guide you can use while translating an asset for global markets.

Stay safe,

Shu Ni

Infographic for Translation Problems and How to Overcome Them

Shu Ni Lim
Shu Ni Lim

Shu Ni has worked as a marketing executive for various global consumer electronics brands before shifting her focus to content writing.

Now at Redokun, Shu Ni hopes to create meaningful content for multilingual needs by utilizing her expertise in linguistics and graphic design.

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