Four Things to Avoid Before Translating Word Documents

January 06, 2011

Most Microsoft Word documents are not optimized for language translation. Although Word is by far the most common source file format for document translation, many people who author and edit documents in Word have never been trained in advanced Word techniques or they continue to cling to bad habits. This blog covers four fairly common mistakes made by Word authors, which can affect both text leveraging in translation and billable time for post-translation document formatting. Be sure to also read our follow-up blog, " 5 More Things to Avoid Before Translating Word Documents."

1. Tabs separating text that should flow in Word table cells

One of the most common challenges that translation company DTP staff encounter with Word documents is text that has been entered "line-by-line", with tabs, to simulate the appearance of "stacked" lines of text. The screen capture below shows the Microsoft Word "print" screen display of this type of text.

shane mcMich no symbols

The screen capture below shows the same Word document text with paragraph marks and hidden formatting symbols displayed. Some of the text is selected to indicate the order in which words were entered. Notice that tabs were used to separate text that appears to be in separate "columns"; the green circles indicate forced line breaks.

shane selected w symbols

Unfortunately, the translation software used by linguists at your translation company will "see" the words in the same order in which they were entered. In this case, translation memory tools cannot be leveraged effectively for previously translated text because the translation software will see the text as "Shane McMichael à +1 866-272-5874 à Director of Marketing." Previously translated text would likely have the word order as "Shane McMichael à Director of Marketing à Americas."

The screen capture below shows the best way to format this type of stacked text in Microsoft Word. A simple one row/two column table was created, with the ruling turned off. Lines of text were entered as separate paragraphs, rather than as a single paragraph with forced line breaks. Text selection reveals that words were entered in an order that produces higher leveraging with translation memory from your previously translated text.

shane in table cell

2. Avoid tables in Word with fixed row height

English source documents in Microsoft Word destined for translation sometimes have tables with fixed row heights. The author or editor may have a preference for matching row heights that achieve a more pleasing table display.

This style can cause expensive reformatting due to "hidden" expanded text in translated Word documents. If paragraph marks and other hidden formatting symbols are not displayed, it may not be evident that some text has wrapped below the bottom of the table cell height.

The screen capture below shows a table with a fixed row height of one inch for both rows. The first row displays all of the English text. The second row, which contains translated German, has some hidden text that has wrapped below the bottom of the cell, as indicated by the red squares.

fixed row height

To correct this condition, select appropriate rows in a table; with the right mouse button, choose Table Properties, select the Row tab, and change "Row height is:" from Exactly to At least.

change row height

The row height will now automatically adjust for expanded translated text, as shown in the screen capture below.

non fixed row height

You may find further guidance helpful on how to resize all or part of a table on the website.

3. Text boxes in Word with no room for text expansion

Many Word authors are in the habit of resizing text boxes in illustrations to be just wide enough to display source English text. Text can expand up to 30% in translation, which will cause the copy to wrap below the bottom of such a text box.

The screen capture below shows a photo with an example of English text in a "tight" text box near the top of the photo, and translated German text in the same size text box near the bottom left of the photo. Text expansion has caused the German text to wrap, dropping one character to a hidden second line. This style of text box would require manual resizing to accommodate text expansion.

two text boxes

The screen capture below shows a better solution for text boxes with translated text in Microsoft Word illustrations. In this case, the blue handles indicate that the text box has been horizontally resized to be wide enough to display expanded, translated text. Notice that the background fill pattern has been turned off to make the wider text box visually pleasing in all target languages.

EN text box.jpg

4. Page breaks or section breaks adjacent to text

Improperly placed page breaks and section breaks can affect both translation integrity and post-linguistic formatting. To gain a sense of just how delicate Microsoft Word section breaks can be, review the webpage " Getting Rid of Section Breaks, but Not Section Formatting".

Page breaks inserted immediately at the end of a sentence, instead of in a separate blank paragraph, can cause challenges in cleaning and preparing files for translation. The screen capture below illustrates a "high risk" page break: if the publisher carelessly uses the backspace or delete key too quickly to delete this page break, formatting will be lost in the heading.

page break

Section breaks placed adjacent to numbered headlines or numbered list items will often cause incorrect numbering in translated files. Recommendation: whenever possible, insert manual page breaks or section breaks in empty paragraphs.

You may wish to refer to " Troubleshoot page breaks and section breaks" on the Microsoft Office support website and "Description of section breaks in Word" on the Microsoft support website. For alternatives to page breaks (e.g. using "keep with next" pagination values) consult " How to Insert a Page Break in Word 2010".

More resources regarding multilingual DTP

Globalization Partners International has extensive experience translating documentation in all common authoring products from Microsoft, Adobe and other vendors. You may wish to review recommended steps used by GPI in DTP projects in Multilingual Desktop Publishing. You may also find our previous blog on " What You Need To Know About Graphic Localization" useful.

Please contact GPI at or at 866-272-5874 with your specific questions about Microsoft Word and your project goals. A complimentary Translation Quote for your project is also available upon request.

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Microsoft, Word, DTP, translation, localization

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  • Oliver LawrenceOn Mar 11, Oliver Lawrence said:
    These are all issues that can impact on individual translators as well as agencies, for which I applaud your post for the awareness that it will raise.
  • Alfred SteinacherOn Mar 11, Alfred Steinacher said:
    Thanks for those tips and hints. I still would recommend not to use Word at all, if a documentation has more than 10 pages.
  • Anton TyupinOn Mar 11, Anton Tyupin said:
    As a translator I agree with all these points. They do not actually cause any serious problems in translation but they do cause a great deal of irritation and lead to time losses.
  • Izabel BasfordOn Mar 11, Izabel Basford said:
    Very interesting! Thanks for sharing this information.
  • Catherine GuilliaumetOn Mar 11, Catherine Guilliaumet said:
    Thank you for this article.
    I recognize most of the problems I meet when translating, particularly those textboxes which are a real nightmare when you try to enter a 25%-longer translation in them !
  • Shadab-Hindi TranslatorsOn Apr 16, Shadab-Hindi Translators said:
    I agree with Anton that they not cause actually any serious problem but they do cause a great deal of irritation. Specially when you have to submit an urgent translation and in-between these small issue comes, this really frustrating. But thanks for your great post which helps now .
  • Oana DiaconuOn Apr 17, Oana Diaconu said:
    Indeed, the points mentioned in this article, as well as those mentioned in "5 More Things to Avoid Before Translating Word Documents" ( don't cause major problems, but they can prove to be annoying and fixing them can be time consuming, especially when time is what we don't have.
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