Overcoming PDF Challenges for Streamlined Language Localization

Bradley Nice
5 min readJun 30, 2023

by Bradley Nice, Content Manager at ClickHelp — all-in-one help authoring tool

In today’s increasingly interconnected and globalized world, the role of translation cannot be overstated. Translators act as linguistic bridge-builders, enabling effective communication across diverse cultures and languages. However, amidst this landscape of linguistic exchange, translators encounter a formidable challenge when it comes to working with PDF files — a format that has become ubiquitous for sharing and distributing documents.

I have a friend, Alex, who works as a translator and has something to say on that matter. He once complained about the challenges he encountered while working on localizing a document for a multinational company. A product manual was provided in PDF format. Although Alex was accustomed to working with various file formats, the PDF presented him with a series of hurdles.

The document was non-editable, making it difficult to work with the text. It contained intricate formatting and layout elements. Translating the text while preserving the visual integrity of these elements posed a considerable challenge. Any deviation from the original layout could lead to confusion for the end-users of the translated document. Moreover, some sections of the manual were scanned images, which meant that the text was not selectable or editable. This further complicated the translation process. Additionally, the manual had technical terminology specific to the company’s industry. Ensuring the accuracy and consistency of these specialized terms throughout the translation was paramount, but locating and managing the terminology within the PDF file proved to be a time-consuming task.

Alex’s story underscores the challenges that translators encounter with PDF documents. Let’s reflect upon the complexities and limitations when localizing a PDF document.

Why Do Translators Work with PDFs?

Using PDFs as a reference in translation projects can be helpful, but primarily to ensure consistent final output.

However, not all clients provide the original file format for translation. Some mistakenly believe it’s easy to edit content directly in the PDF, while others assume translators create new files from scratch, such as in Microsoft Word, to input the translated text. They often fail to recognize that receiving an editable document and replacing the text with the translation is a simpler approach.

Certain clients opt to send PDF files when they perceive the source files, like Adobe InDesign documents, as too complex for translators to handle. Unfortunately, occasionally you may encounter unresponsive clients who expect you to find solutions or possess the talent to handle any file format independently.

In some companies, those requesting translations have no involvement in the source files. They receive PDFs or retrieve them from a shared repository without any knowledge of the original creator.

Overall, while receiving PDFs as references can be useful, it is important to communicate with clients, obtain editable source files whenever possible, and emphasize the benefits of maintaining the original format for efficient and accurate translations.

Challenges with PDFs for Translators

PDF files, known for their portability and consistency across different platforms, present unique and intricate obstacles that can impede the translation process. These challenges include:

  • Non-Editable Nature. PDFs are typically non-editable, making it difficult for translators to directly modify the text. This limitation impedes the seamless workflow that translators rely on.
  • Formatting and Layout Complexities. PDFs often contain complex formatting elements, such as tables, images, and graphics. Translators must ensure that the translated content maintains the original layout and visual integrity, adding an additional layer of complexity to the translation process.
  • Text Extraction. Extracting text from PDFs for translation can be a cumbersome task, especially when the content is scanned or embedded within images. The inability to access the source text directly hampers translation efficiency.

Still, there are times when translators must work with PDF documents. So we’ll try to solve the issues in the next chapter.

Strategies for Overcoming PDF Translation Challenges

To overcome the challenges posed by PDF files, translators can adopt the following strategies:

  • Utilizing OCR (Optical Character Recognition) Technology. OCR software can convert scanned or image-based PDFs into editable text, enabling translators to work directly with the content. OCR technology greatly enhances translation speed and accuracy. Professional OCR software, such as ABBYY FineReader or Adobe Acrobat Pro, can accurately extract text from scanned or image-based PDFs, enabling easy translation.
  • Converting PDFs to Editable Formats. Translators can convert PDF files into editable formats, such as Microsoft Word or plain text, using conversion tools. This conversion enables seamless editing and translation without the limitations of a non-editable PDF. Online platforms like Smallpdf or PDF2Go offer convenient conversion services, allowing translators to convert PDFs into editable formats quickly.
  • Collaborative Approaches for Formatting and Layout. Collaborating with desktop publishing specialists or using CAT (Computer-Assisted Translation) tools that support visual context can help maintain the original formatting and layout of the translated document. This ensures visual consistency while preserving the integrity of the original design. There are a bunch of Computer-Assisted Translation tools, for example, SDL Trados Studio, Memsource, SmartCAT, or MemoQ.


While PDFs are practical references for maintaining consistent final output and can be managed by linguists even without the original document or certain TM tools, they do have limitations. However, since PDFs remain a popular document format, it’s crucial for translators to adapt, be resourceful, and stay updated on OCR technology and CAT tools advancements. By tackling the specific challenges associated with PDF files, translators can provide precise, localized content, effectively bridging communication gaps between cultures and languages.

That said, it is highly recommended to make an effort to locate the source file as it greatly simplifies and expedites the translation process.

Have a nice day!

Bradley Nice, Content Manager at ClickHelp.com — best online documentation tool for SaaS vendors



Bradley Nice

Content Manager at https://medium.com/level-up-web 👈. I write about web design, web development and technical writing. Follow me on Twitter and Facebook