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Translating Idioms: Why a Professional Translation is Essential

Idioms are an important part of our language, maybe even more than we actually realize. They are so ingrained in our normal language usage that we may even use them without realizing it. It is important to understand what an idiom is. According to Webster’s Dictionary, an idiom is “an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements” or “a language, dialect, or style of speaking peculiar to a people”. Basically, idioms are the expressions and sayings that people use when they speak or write that have their own unique meanings and cannot always be taken literally. There’s no use beating around the bush - we can’t turn a blind eye to them. So what do we do with them when they appear in a text that needs to be translated? A professional translator will recognize an idiom and find the equivalent to that expression in the target language. More often than not, the expression used in the source language will not be the same as the expression’s corresponding version in the target language. However, the target language will have its own version of the expression that the translator will use instead. It is extremely important to use the target language version of the idiom. If translated word for word, an idiom will lose its intended meaning and may actually cause a complete lack of understanding for the reader in the target language.

Here are some common English idioms with their Spanish equivalents. We have included the literal translation of the Spanish versions just to show how much meaning may actually be lost if one tries to convert the Spanish idiom back into English.

English Source: “To turn a blind eye” Spanish Target: Taparse los ojosLiteral Back Translation: "To cover one’s eyes"

English Source: “To beat around the bush” Spanish Target:Andarse por rodeosLiteral Back Translation: "To go on detours"

English Source: “It’s 6 of 1 and half a dozen of the other.” Spanish Target:Olivo y aceituno, todo es uno.Literal Back Translation: "An olive and an olive tree, it’s all one."

English Source: “On all fours” Spanish Target:A gatasLiteral Back Translation: "Like cats"

While these are a few fun examples, you can see how literal translations can be problematic. The same is true for all of the text you need to have translated, not just for idioms. Anyone who reads the target text should believe it was written originally in his/her language. Literal translations of texts are easy to spot and they can turn customers off to your brand or products, as they are a sign that little care was put into trying to connect with the reader.

Have you come across any literal translations that caused a translation blunder? Feel free to share them below!


What information does ATS consider when providing my free quote?

For each project that ATS handles, we consider several different factors when it comes to providing your free quote. We will consider the project type or service you request, the source and target languages of your project, and the timeline in which the project needs to be completed. No matter what project you need handled, ATS will be sure to offer you the most competitive rates possible while taking these items into consideration.

A legal document should be handled differently than a technical operating manual and ATS takes project type into account. Since these two areas are so distinct, we have teams of different linguists who work on each one. It is important that our linguists be highly specialized in the content area you request. We have a wide array of linguists with many specialties, so doing so is usually not a problem. If we do not have a specialist in your project’s subject area, ATS will work to recruit someone who is able to handle your project type.

We also take source and target languages into consideration. Language combinations that are more rare sometimes require us to charge higher rates than some of the more common language combinations, for example.

ATS also takes your desired/needed timeline into consideration when providing your free quote. A job that does not need to be returned immediately, and will not rush the linguists who are working on the project for you, will not require any additional fees. However, if the project turnaround time will require our linguists to work overtime-type hours to finish it within the desired timeline, we may need to add rush fees to the quote. You will have the chance to accept the fees or change the timeline of the project.

Interpreting is quoted differently than document translation, since the services require a different set of skills. Similar to translation, however, the type of interpreting service needed will also be something ATS considers when providing your quote. Interpreting for a surgery is handled differently than interpreting for a legal deposition, for example. ATS offers varying types of interpreting services, such as in-person or over-the-phone interpreting. We also take source and target languages into account, just as we do for document translation, as well as the time required for our interpreter to be available. If an interpreter needs to be available for longer than a normal working period, we may need to charge additional fees.

No matter what project or service you need, ATS will be happy to answer any questions you may have and will always provide you with the most competitive rates possible. Please don’t hesitate to email us at so that one or our Project Managers can assist you at every step along the way – we are happy to help!

Why Translation Costs Vary Among Languages

When looking to translate a document for your company, you may desire to translate this document into multiple languages instead of just one. If you are translating an instruction manual into Spanish, Russian, and Japanese, for example, you may assume that the rate for each language will be the same, that the Spanish translation will cost the same as the Japanese, and so on. However, you may be surprised to see that the quoted rates vary among languages. There are several reasons why the cost varies from one language to another. The first, and most common, reason to consider is that more commonly used languages in business often have more available translators to work on the project. The more linguists there are who work in a specific field for each language pair, the more likely it is that there will be more competitive rates among them. For more obscure languages or those used less often in the specific field of your document’s content, there will be fewer linguists from which to choose. These linguists may be in high demand for their time and work, resulting in an increased rate.

For shorter documents, linguist minimum payments may also impact the resulting quoted rates. Linguists often charge minimums to ensure that they are compensated fairly for the time and overhead associated with doing the translation. If you have multiple short documents that you need translated, and can schedule them all at once, it is best to do so. Word counts can often be combined when multiple documents are assigned at once, helping you to avoid a minimum payment. For example, if you have three documents that need to be translated into Spanish at once, and their collective word count exceeds the linguist’s per-word minimum rate, but only one short Japanese document, you may end up paying more for the one Japanese document because of the required minimum. If you can combine shorter translations into one project, you will definitely get more for your dollar.

Quoted language rates may also differ based on word counts. Although most languages are quoted based on source word, others may need to be quoted based on the target word count. This can happen if the source document is a character-based language, such as Simplified Chinese, or if it is a file with no discernable word count (e.g. files that cannot be edited and counted, or audio files, for example). Although many language rates for translation are at least similar, it is still best to know that some languages will be more expensive than others, which may help you to best choose which languages you will choose to translate into if there is any priority among languages for your business.

Three Things You Should (But May Not) Know about the Translation Process

We understand that it can be a little confusing or overwhelming when you first begin looking into translating your company’s materials. Here are a few things we feel may be beneficial to know as you begin.

1. Translation is a multiple-step process. While it could seem that translation is just a single step of translating a document from one language to another, it is actually quite the opposite. Just as a well-written essay needs to be reviewed for errors, properly formatted, and the information debated if necessary, the translation process is much the same. Even the most highly skilled translators will not return a perfect translation every time.  Once the translation is finished, a proofreader will review the translation and compare it with its source document to check for any potential errors. If there are questions about the document and the word choices, the project manager you’re working with will help field those between the translator and proofreader, to ensure that the best possible final product is returned to you. Often, there is an editing step involved as well. After the translation is finalized, the project also undergoes a quality assurance step. All font choices, spacing and images, for example, will be reviewed to ensure that the formatting of the translation matches the source file. Knowing this information can help you properly plan for completing your project on time for your company.

2. If something changes in the document you’re having translated (a sentence is added or removed, something is reworded, etc.), it’s best to advise the project manager handling your project as quickly as possible. If the change is brought to our attention early enough, we may be able to ask the linguists working your translation to input the changes during the translation or proofreading steps. If we are not made aware of the changes until after we return the document to you, we will have to ask our linguists to retranslate the parts that have changed, possibly resulting in subsequent charges (or minimums).

3. When possible, bundle smaller translations to be done at once. This step could save you a good deal of money! Linguists often charge minimum amounts for shorter translations, resulting in higher charges for you. However, if you have three or four shorter documents that can be bundled together into one project, we can ask the linguist to combine them, thus avoiding a minimum payment for you.

Our goal is to make sure that you are satisfied with your translation by making our working relationship as seamless and easy as possible. If there is anything we can do to help or questions we can answer along the way, please reach out to the project manager handling your translation!

A behind-the-scenes peek: What happens to your document once you send it off for translation?

Do you ever wonder exactly what happens to your document once you send it off for translation? Do the magical language wizards wave their wands to instantly create your files in the target language? Well, even though we like to think we're magical, there's nothing instant about it. A lot goes on behind the scenes once you hit "send".

Document Review The Project Manager (PM) who receives your documents must review the source files for any kind of errors or meanings that could be misconstrued in the translation step. She may warn you that certain expressions or idioms don't "translate well" and that a similar one will be used in the target text. You also have the option of making changes to avoid something like this if you wish. If any terms or images require localization for the target audience, the PM will let you know this, too. This is often the case in marketing materials and other files in which an image holds a specific meaning in a culture.

If you are sending scanned documents, the PM may let you know about portions of text that appear to be illegible and may create a problem for the linguists working on it. If possible, try to enlarge any blurred text or make a clearer copy for reference.

Whenever units of measurement are used in a text, the PM will ask you if you wish to convert the non-metric units to metric. Most of the time, product names and proper names are maintained in the source language, unless a translation is requested. If your products will be sold overseas and you don't plan to translate the product's label for the consumer, it's best to maintain the original product name if possible. After all, you want your product to sell and the consumer to recognize it easily.

Translation Memory (TM) If you've never had any files translated, your PM will create a TM for your files. George Rimalower described a TM as "a database of words or phrases that have been previously translated" in his article "Essential Steps for Preparing a Document for Translation" in the August 2013 issue of the ATA Chronicle. This explanation is perfect, as the process is quite complicated and many times involves converting your files into a different format in order to create a TM. The TM will build over time as more and more files are translated and the memory recognizes repeated words and phrases. The translator, proofreader, editor and PM will all use the TM associated with your files. This allows linguists to complete future projects more quickly, consistently and efficiently, and it will save you money over time.

Document Output Once the files make their rounds through the linguists involved in your project, your PM will review them again. This step is crucial to maintaining quality in the translation process. It involves much more than simply checking for any missing text, misspelled words or incorrect punctuation in the target language. The PM will also ensure that any images are recreated in the files and that any client-specific instructions have been followed with precision. She will then deliver the files to you in the format requested before starting the project.

This is just a peek into the process that takes place behind the scenes when you send off a file for translation. There are more intricate details involved in each phase, in addition to the translation, editing and proofing steps. As Rimalower adds, "Constant communication and close collaboration are critical to success during each phase of the process." If your PM is asking you a lot of questions, consider this a good thing.