This is a guest article by journalist and author Marton Radkai and editor Esther Harrison of the translation agency Baker & Company.

In the effusive communications of a globalized world, the real importance of translation is often overlooked. Everyone expects to find texts written in a language they understand, often English, which has become, nilly-willy, a lingua franca, particularly on the Internet. Fact is, those texts were often conceived and written in another language. They must be translated for consumers or for other businesses. They might be snappy ads, detailed white papers, company magazines, or colorful brochures. Let us not forget the modest press release, which is oftentimes the spearhead of a full-fledged campaign.

Industrial automation can handle some basic mechanical tasks like spot welding and carrying supplies, but fails when it comes to the finer work performed by human fingers and opposable thumbs. Similarly, machine translation can churn out coarse copy of relatively neutral text, but a human being, a translator/trans-literator, is required to fine-tune copy and make it “sing” in the new language. Because translation is not merely about carrying words and meaning from the source to the target language. It’s more like rearranging, say, a string quintet for another set of instruments.

Achieving an ideal translation is painstaking work, though it might look easy to outsider. Speaking the target language fluently does not suffice. “The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” wrote philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and that sums up the challenge of facing experienced translators quite accurately. They must learn to shuttle between several worlds, each with its own rules, regulations and sonority.

The process is quite concrete. Translators need to know the target audience. For that, they have to be given a careful briefing by the client. Is the copy advertising, i.e. for consumers who may want, or need to be seduced, by a product? Will that seduction work in another country? Germans tend towards direct, slightly understated communication, whereas the American style is more brash, even boastful. So, how will one translate the syntax of one language in such a way as to have the same impact in the other?

For magazine material, readability is key. But respecting the author’s organization of material is also to be considered. A translator may want to consider how an article begins in the target language before working on the first paragraph.

If, on the other hand, the copy is meant to be more technical, like a white paper for decision-makers, the challenge is different. It will need to steer very close to the original, without, however, sounding like it. Long sentences in German often need to be cut into bite-sized chunks or rejiggered to be more direct – with the subjects first and the clauses at the end. The translator may even want to create headlines and paragraph titles to ease comprehension for the Anglo reader. All this with the approval of the client, of course. In the Anglo-Saxon world, even “serious” copy can be written for the pleasure of the reader. From my own practice, I remember writing about fiber-optic cables and using headlines that punned on the word “wave” (since light moves in waves), even using the title of the well-known movie Breaking the Waves. The customer was thrilled.

As for the press release, it is a special case. Its principle aim, as the name itself suggests, is to inform the informers, the press, and act as a teaser for a product, or an event. German writers will sometimes open with a verbless statement in German for extra impact. French writers on the other hand, are willing to put flowery descriptions up front that would make an Anglo-Saxon cringe, because he or she seeks the facts and everything else sounds like opinion. Your press release may have to be rewritten in English, but it will then be far more attractive to editors needing a piece they can use without too much editing work.

Finally, it is wise to remember that translation is not an exact science. Errors do happen, and some can be very costly, which is why translators, like journalists and writers, need editing. The Germans have an outstanding expression: betriebsblind. In this case, it describes the peculiar inability of authors or translators to be objective and precise when rereading their product. Another set of eyes going over the result is necessary. This can help the translator better understand what kind of language and tonality of the client would like to have and needs. It also helps build a fruitful relationship with a discreet, but key, person in the company’s communication.