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Are all PDFs equal?
January 28, 2013
Portable Document Format (PDF) is one of the more common file types for electronic documents. Developed by Adobe Systems more than 20 years ago, PDF is now an open standard for the storage and transfer of electronic files, which can be generated from a multitude of different applications and software.

Much like the proverbial smack in the head from your mom in a fancy store, PDFs generally follow a “look but don’t touch” philosophy. By design, PDFs allow users to read and do minimal formatting, but the changing of actual text can be very difficult.

PDFs are typically created one of two ways; either from a scan or through the original source. You cannot create a PDF without a source file; it has to come from somewhere. The source file can really be any of a variety of different file types, but it’s the file where the original text was created and entered.

If you scan a document in, essentially it’s just taking a picture of the file. The PDF has no way of knowing that the document is English text, Chinese symbols or even a photocopy of the office clown’s head. It is essentially just a snapshot of the file. Now, when a PDF is created from the original source file, some of the text and formatting information is retained. What is the easiest way to tell how your PDF was created? If you can highlight the text, copy it, and paste it into a word processing program such as Microsoft Word, then your PDF was generated from the original source file. If your document is crooked, of poor quality or has a coffee ring on it from when someone left their cup on the scanner, it was probably created from a scan.

So what does all of this mean? From a translation standpoint, it could mean the difference of a couple of hours’ worth of work (for which you may be charged). The best way to look at it is to actually forget about translation and just look at it from an English perspective. Let’s say you have a PDF of a five-page form that your company uses and you need to make some changes to it. Since it’s a PDF, you can’t make changes to the file so what you would need to do is convert the PDF to some editable format. If the PDF was created from the original source file, you may be able to export it into Microsoft Word and possibly do a clean-up of the file (because exports never go exactly the way you want). But if the PDF is based off a scan, then that form needs to be created from scratch. All those nice and neat little cells and intricate parts of the table that make it look oh so pretty need to be done all over again.

So before we even get to the translation, we need to get the file into a format with which the translator can work. It’s much faster and easier for translators to work from files where the text is editable and the format is already established. This way, they can concentrate on the main goal of the project, the translation, and not spend time and resources to recreate layout designs.

When you send a PDF, we may ask you if you have a copy of the original source file but, this is not just to be a pest. We do this to make sure that translation is done as quickly and effectively as possible (and so we don’t get smacked in the head by mom).

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