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Tips for Multilingual InDesign Projects

translation best practices for InDesign

Because I work in multilingual publishing, I work with people and documents from around the world each day. Many times, what I see are unstructured documents and unorganized processes, leading to inefficiency. Often, a designer ends up copying and pasting text back and forth between the InDesign document and a Word or Excel file that is exchanged with a translation vendor. Or, on better days, the designer sends an IDML file to the translation vendor. Either way, there are often problems, delays, and errors because the vendor doesn’t know how to handle the graphics, or the documents were not properly structured and formatted for translation. So I’ve developed a few best practices that I thought I’d share here.

Working With Translation Vendors

Translators often find it difficult to work with InDesign files. Instead, they use software which handles the IDML file format. You can generate IDML files easily by choosing File > Export > Format: InDesign Markup (IDML). But what’s most important is how you set up your InDesign file before you export the IDML. If you send your translation vendor files that are badly structured and difficult to work with, they may ask you to send a Word document instead, and then you’re back to the copy-and-paste situation.

Keep in mind that your translation vendor probably doesn’t use InDesign, and if it does, chances are that they don’t know how to use it properly because their work is translating text, not laying out documents. So it’s you who needs to use InDesign correctly and follow a couple of simple rules to structure your document. Also, it helps to send them a PDF file to use as a reference.

Segmentation: What is it and why should you care?

When the translator imports the IDML file, the software divides its text by paragraphs, tabs, and sentences. This process is called segmentation and it’s done automatically. Translated segments are stored in a database (sometimes called a translation memory) that is used to produce the translated text faster and with fewer errors. Proper segmentation is important because badly segmented text will be very tricky (or impossible) for the translator to handle properly.

As any automatic process, segmentation is done by following some basic rules. The most important ones under your direct control involve the use of paragraph returns and tabs. When you have a title that is separated into two paragraphs, or when you have a tab (or a string of spaces) in the middle of a sentence, you are creating bad segmentation, and that will make it much more difficult for a translator to work on your file.

Making translation-friendly InDesign files

The first steps to making your file easier to translate are:

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  1. Use forced-line breaks (soft-returns) or paragraph formatting when you need to break a title in more lines. A hard-return in the middle of a sentence breaks the sentence in two different segments. This might be very tricky for the translators because they might not be able to comprehend or recreate the sense of the two chunks.
  2. Use tabs correctly. For the same reasons you should use soft returns: typing a tab in the middle of a sentence breaks the text in two different segments.
  3. Use paragraph styles for bulleted and numbered lists. Not only does this help you format your document quickly and efficiently, it also helps to keep the formatting correct in the language of translation, improves the translation consistency.
  4. Avoid putting text in linked images. All the text you want to translate should be live in InDesign. Translating the picture itself is not advisable because then you’ll need to create and manage many copies of the same image, which will complicate your workflow going forward.

Keep it simple

If you don’t translate a lot of documents and your translators handle IDML files (and you are fine with sending them the IDML file), it makes no sense to use scripts, plug-ins, or other software to export the text to Word or other formats. Follow the rules listed above. Send your translators both an IDML file and a PDF and let them replace the text in your document.

Translate after the content is final

If possible, make sure the content is final before getting it translated. It’s better to wait and hand off the final content, rather than than having to translate the entire document again from scratch, or having to track and manually update all the different language versions.

Communicate with your vendor

And finally, as with any workflow, clear communication leads to better results. Talk to your translation vendor and ask what else you can do to improve your files and speed up their job.

As Redokun's Co-Founder, Stefano Bernardi spends most of his time helping customers to optimize their InDesign workflow on multilingual projects. He also holds in-house InDesign courses for companies in the Venice, Italy area.
  • Chris Thompson says:

    As a one-time project manager in a translation company, and currently a translator and multilingual DTP-er, I’d also add:

    – as well as the IDML file, make sure your translators get a PDF of the original-language document, so they can see the words in context*
    – use tables (not just tabs) for tabular content, to make it easier to adjust for the varying length of the translated table cell contents. Sentences and phrases translated from English can expand by 25% or more in many languages
    – use styles consistently, to make it easier to make global changes such as a different font (which may be necessary if the original fonts’ repertoire of characters isn’t sufficient for the target languages)

    *Gratuitous translation joke:
    “How many translators does it take to change a lightbulb?”
    “It depends on the context.”


  • Chris Thompson says:

    Oops. Just realised you’d covered the PDF aspect already. Still, it gave me a chance to tell that joke.


  • Billy Ölvestad says:

    Good article!

    I worked for two years at a translation agency preparing InDesign documents for translation. I have a few extra tips for the IDML-flow:

    Some target languages will have radically more or less text than the source language when you get the translated file.
    I sometimes prepared books with hundreds of pages of threaded text frames.
    If you then have images outside the text frames, the paragraph that illustration/image/diagram/table belongs to will sometimes move several pages forwards or backwards, and since you probably don´t know the language it can be VERY tricky to move the illustrations to the correct page.
    To prevent this, always anchor the illustrations to the paragraph they belong to (drag from the anchor-box in the image to the text). That way the images will always stay next to the paragraphs they belong to.

    Another hot tip is, if there is any text that you don´t want to translate, but needs to be kept in the document, move it to its own frame and hide it temporarily by clickin the eye-icon beside the object in the layers panel
    Many translation tools will automatically ignore text in objects that are hidden.

    Also, if your document has a lot of instructions and/or old versions of text outside the page, on the pasteboard, please remove it, or at least hide it. Otherwise that will also be translated, making the translation difficult for the translator, and more expensive for you, because you usually pay the translator a fee per translated word. I learned this the hard way, and it became a very expensive project. :-)

    • Stefano Bernardi says:

      >Some target languages will have radically more or less text than the source language when you get the translated file.

      One thing I didn’t mention is that you might want to make some more space for the new language.
      When I am done with the layout of my document, I generally change the scale of the text to 130%. Then I adapt each text-frame to the new dimension of the next, and where I have Threaded TF I type a Page-Break at the end of each frame. At the end, I change the text scale back to 100%.

  • Gerard says:

    What programs do you typically use to create the translation?
    Would the translator still be using INDesign or are there other programs they use with the IDML file to create new document?

    • Stefano Bernardi says:

      Well, I’m biased because we actually developed a tool specifically designed to work with InDesign files that need to be produced in many languages (check my bio).
      However, there are plenty of generic translation tools. As I said in the article, you can go to translation just by sending to your translator an IDML file, and you’ll get back another IDML file with the new language. I know Trados and MemoQ are popular between professional translators. These solutions are very powerful, but be aware that you need a proper training before using them.

    • Stefano Bernardi says:

      I forgot to mention that in some cases I’ve seen using also InCopy as a translation tool.
      That might seem like a good fit when you have native speakers inside your company.
      However, InCopy doesn’t have Translation Memories so it might be hard to keep translation consistency and use the same terminology among many documents.
      Also, with InCopy you might forget to translate something. That doesn’t happen if you use a translation tool.

  • I work for a corporate in-house creative services department. We create layouts in InDesign, anglicize (or anglicise) them for Europe, and then translate to seven different languages. Some translation is done by employees, some by agencies. We copy and paste in some translations, and some of the agencies do layout in InDesign as they translate.

    We have a lot of technical drawings (Illustrator files) that require translation, and began creating layers for each language in Illustrator. You can turn the appropriate language layer on and off in InDesign using the Layers Option function. (With one of the content tools selected, right click on the illustration and chose Object Layer Options, or find the same function under the Object menu.) This allows us to maintain one copy of each technical drawing (which our Engineers LOVE) instead of seven. Takes communication when working with an agency or new vendor, but WELL worth the effort.

    • Stefano Bernardi says:

      Julie, why don’t you deal with the text in the InDesign file directly?
      Is there any reason behind your choice?

      • Stefano Bernardi says:

        I just noticed that my comment might sound a little bit harsh :S
        sorry for that, I was just wondering what are the advantages of dealing with the images in that way

      • Not harsh at all. We did try doing the translation in InDesign. Ended up being kind of tricky because of the way the text grows when you translate it. We are also using drawings multiple times across several different brochures or installation instructions, etc. We just found it was easier to take care of the translation in Illustrator so we didn’t have to re-do it in other InDesign docs or make sure we were catching everything when we copied and pasted translation in to new docs. If we have to revise a drawing or a translation layer (which…unfortunately…happens a lot because the technology involved is changing rapidly), we can edit it in the Illustrator file and it’s automatically updated in all of the documents that use the drawing.

  • Phil Lyndon says:

    We find that translations are supplied as Word files by our United Nations clients. We try to produce the French or German InDesign files first as these languages run much longer than English. If the French or German text fits then the English certainly will without having to alter style sheets or make pictures smaller to accommodate longer running text. If we must start with the English, then good para and character style sheets are essential. Pictures are also useful as we can reduce their size to make space.

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