The translation industry can seem large and confusing sometimes, can’t it? With so many different services offered by so many different providers, it can be hard to keep track of what you want and what you need. On top of that, if you’re responsible for purchasing such services, you have to make judgement calls that require you to balance cost and effectiveness. ‘That flashy new cut-price translation service looks interesting’, you might say to yourself, ‘but is it just a false economy?’
When it comes to translation services that offer huge savings, you’d be forgiven for being sceptical. Consider the way machine translation is sometimes marketed: as a faster, cheaper alternative to full professional translation by humans. And yet it never seems to live up to the hype: in practice, the results it delivers tend to be patchy at best and incomprehensible at worst. So given this context, when you see surprisingly low rates for services like summary and selective translation, it can be difficult to assess their value and utility.
Summary selective translations: what does it all mean?
For starters, let’s ask a very simple question: what are summary and selective translations, exactly? Although they share common features, these are in fact two quite different services. Let’s look at summary translations first. Whereas a full translation is intended to perfectly capture every bit of content and meaning in the original text, including more abstract features like its tone and style, a summary translation is more about conveying the general idea of a text. Think of it like the difference between watching a football game live on TV, and catching the edited highlights later in the day. Where a full translation might produce, say, a long essay on the results of an agricultural study, a summary translation might condense these results down into bullet points so that they can be digested more quickly. All the key information is there, but the detail has been cut out.
Selective translation takes a different approach. Instead of boiling everything down to the essentials, it identifies and translates only the most important parts of a text. Sticking with the above example of an agricultural study, you might perhaps translate just the table of contents, the abstract, the conclusion and any graphs or tables provided. Each of these selected sections would be fully translated to the same standard as a full translation – but everything else in the text would either remain in its source language or be removed entirely, leaving its meaning unknown.
How valuable are these sorts of translations? Well, it’s hard to give a clear-cut answer to that. The short version is that it depends on your individual needs, budget and time constraints. Certainly, both of these abbreviated styles of translation have their benefits: they’re faster to produce, easier to read and usually cost at least a little less to commission than full translations. Summary translations are a great way to understand what a document is about in the broadest sense, which makes them a good fit for occasions when you have a large volume of information, you’re not sure how much of it is important or useful, and you want to make that determination for yourself. In that case, a summary translation will give you the overview of it all, possibly letting you go back and have specific sections fully translated later on.
A selective translation, on the other hand, is great if you have a large document and no idea what it means. You want to understand what it’s saying, but also get more than just the bare bones of the most important parts. A translator can pick out the key sections for you and translate these in full, leaving you with an understanding of both the core facts and what the text would be like to read in its original source format. It can also be potentially handy in cases where – for example – you want to publish extracts from a translated document as part of a larger document which you have produced yourself.
Pros and cons
For all their benefits, however, these types of translations also have drawbacks. It’s important to understand that selective and summary translations are not suited to every occasion. They may be cheaper than full translations, but as always, you get what you pay for. Neither type of translation is likely to be suitable for public consumption, for example, without some heavy subsequent editing or additional translation. Similarly, if you need the full detail of a document, any kind of abbreviated translation is likely to miss some facts and features. And in the case of a selective translation, a translator can make their best guess about what’s likely to be important to you – but at the end of the day, only you will be able to say for sure what matters – and only a full, professional translation is going to allow you to make that judgement for certain.
Instead, the best way to think of selective and summary translations is as initial guides that you can use to help you decide what to do next. For internal use and high-level analyses, especially when handling exceptionally high word counts (think millions or more), short-form translations might be exactly what you need. If you’re operating under strict time constraints and just need the basic information as fast as possible, they’ll give you a quick digest of what’s going on with the document.
On the other hand, if you plan on ever sharing these translations with people like business partners or the general public – in short, anyone who might struggle to understand the document without the full context – a full translation is probably the safer option. It’s the only approach that guarantees total access to information, top quality and absolute clarity.
Finally, remember that the worst possible result would be to receive a translation that’s less complete or less well-written than you expect. With that in mind, the best advice we can offer is to make sure you fully understand what type of service you’re ordering from a translation agency – and if in doubt, to err on the side of caution and commission a top-quality full translation that covers absolutely everything.