How to translate a PDF

You may have already asked your professional translation provider to help you with translating documents in Word or Excel format. But what about PDF? Is it possible to translate a PDF document? The answer is simple: of course! We understand that you may not always have your source content in an editable format, but that doesn’t hinder the process of getting a good translation. In fact, whether the source text is available in Word or PDF format, the outcome will be the same: a high-quality, professional translation completed by native speaker linguists.

Can you Google Translate a PDF?

That being said, you may be wondering if it is in fact possible to simply Google Translate a PDF. Again, the answer is yes. Not only is it possible to simply copy and paste your source text into the text box on Google Translate, they also offer the possibility to translate a range of document types up to 10MB in size, including PDF.

As explained in our 10 Reasons why Human Translation beats Machine Translation blog post, we would only suggest using Google Translate if all you need is the gist of a text in another language. If you are using the translation for publication purposes, we would not recommend using Google Translate for PDF documents. Or any documents at all, in fact.

How to translate PDF documents

Using human translators, there are three ways in which we can translate PDF documents:

1. Convert your PDF to a Word document

Using sites like or, you can convert a PDF document into a Word document that maintains the same layout and images. While this can be a very useful tool, the layout doesn’t always appear exactly the same in Word format. Text may run out of text boxes and line breaks may appear in different places, meaning that it isn’t possible to simply translate the text in this converted Word document format and save the translated copy as a PDF. Unless you don’t need a professionally typeset layout for the translated versions, that is.

It is worth mentioning that, although the conversion process is very quick, your translation provider would still need to double-check that all the text has in fact been extracted from the layout. Even paid-for PDF converter tools can’t be fully relied upon. It all depends on the quality of the PDF layout and the legibility of the text contained within it.

2. Manually extract the text into a Word document

If you will be opting to have the translation and the typesetting completed by different professionals, we would recommend extracting the text manually from a PDF into a Word document. This is essentially a copy-and-paste job. The human eye can actually be more efficient at ensuring that all the text is extracted and the correct formatting (i.e. bold or italics) is applied to the relevant parts of the texts. From our experience, this is something that PDF conversion tools often miss. Manually extracting the text does open up the possibility for human error, though in many cases, this can be a safer option than relying on technology.

This Word document can then be imported into a CAT tool to create a bilingual file format with the source text on the left and the corresponding translation on the right. Not only is this very useful for the translator but it ultimately makes life easier for the typesetters when it comes to incorporating the translated text into the original layout.

3. Use a CAT tool

Using a CAT tool, also known as translation memory software, is a popular approach for many clients as it creates cost savings and ensures maximum consistency with previously translated content. Many CAT tools include PDF documents as part of their supported file types. The approach is similar to that of other PDF document converter tools in that, once the translation is complete, the translated version can be exported as a Word document that mirrors the layout of the PDF (or thereabouts).

Another way to integrate a CAT tool into your workflow to create a translated PDF is to provide your translation agency with your content in its native file format, such as Adobe InDesign (INDD or IDML). If a CAT tool supports such file types, and most now do, these files can be imported into the CAT tool, translated, and returned in its native file format and saved as a PDF. Sounds simple enough, but it’s worth keeping in mind that a freelance translator or small language service provider may not necessarily have applications such as InDesign installed on their computer, and further work on the layout will probably be necessary to make sure that the translated PDF looks just as visually appealing as the original. If you have many PDFs to translate, it might be worth considering working with a translation agency rather than a freelance professional, as they are more likely to be able to help with multilingual typesetting. Take a look at our blog post on How to find the right translation agency for our top tips.

Points to consider for typesetting translations

If you want your translation to be typeset so that the translated PDF matches the look and feel of the original, there are a few additional points to consider:

  1. Expansion: when English is your source language and your target languages include one or more European languages, it would be worth ensuring that the layout in your PDF has some additional space for expansion. From our experience, an English text can expand by around 25% when translated into French and by up to 30% when translated into German. Allowing room in your layout from the very beginning will avoid potential delays and additional costs when it comes to typesetting the translation back into PDF format. If there is no room for expansion, your designers may have to make changes to the layout in order to fit the translated text.
  2. Fonts: languages that use different alphabets, like Russian and Greek, and those that use characters, like Chinese and Japanese, will have the additional consideration of font substitutions. The fonts used in the original source PDF will not necessarily include accented letters or support character-based languages. At best, using the original fonts will result in the translations not looking quite right to a native speaker. At worst, you’ll see a jumble of corrupted characters or rows of empty boxes known as tofu. So, you may need to decide on replacement fonts to use in the translated versions of PDFs.
  3. Images: this is one thing that can often be overlooked. Are the images in your layout culturally appropriate and relevant to all of your markets? Just like a mistranslation, an image that causes offence to a particular market shows lack of cultural sensitivity and could potentially lose you customers. The same can be said for images your target audience can’t relate to, such as a product that isn’t available in their country. The images are just as important as the translation, so it’s best to get it right first time.

In summary, it is of course possible to translate a PDF document. At Planet Languages, we can advise you on the best approach for translating your PDF. And with us, you can be assured that our linguists will have access to everything they need: the complete source text for translation in an editable format for CAT tool integration, plus the original PDF document for visual reference. We even go one step further and offer typesetting services by specialist foreign-language typesetting teams. We would look after everything from start to finish so that you receive the finished product ready to print.

About the author

Kelly Ruscoe graduated with a 2:1 in German, Russian and Spanish from the University of St Andrews with a distinction in spoken German. During her time at university, she spent a year teaching English in Germany and a semester studying Russian in St. Petersburg. In her role as a project manager, she coordinates multilingual translation projects and helps her colleagues with her knowledge of her native and studied languages. When not working, she can be found with her nose in a book, pounding the pavements or making waves in the pool.