What is Desktop Publishing and Why Do You Need It?

Caitlin Nicholson

For most people outside of the world of graphic design, the term “desktop publishing” probably doesn’t mean much. If you’ve even heard the phrase in the first place, chances are you wrote it off as something that doesn’t concern you and likely never will. And most of the time, that’s true. 

 But that can all change when you contact a translation service provider for a quote, you send them a PDF, and they respond with the blood-chilling question, “Will you need desktop publishing?” [Cue the faint sound of screams and the Sesame Street Count laughing maniacally in the distance.] But what does desktop publishing mean? What is Desktop Publishing? (DTP) At its most basic level, the definition of desktop publishing (commonly known as DTP) is the practice of laying out pages on a computer. Think of a typical brochure or a page from a magazine: there might be several columns and images; multiple fonts; and various other boxes, shapes, and icons that give the finished product its professional look. DTP is usually performed using professional software like Adobe InDesign, FrameMaker, or QuarkXpress. Desktop publishing often overlaps with the even vaguer term “formatting,” which can also involve laying out pages in more common software like Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. A desktop publisher is the person who uses any of the above software to create layouts. What Does Desktop Publishing Mean For Translations?  By now you’re very, very fascinated, but what does DTP have to do with your translation project? Translating a document often involves more than just the act of translation. After all, once those words are done being translated, they have to go somewhere. In a basic Word file, the translator can typically just overwrite the source text with the translated text, and Bob’s your uncle. After all, everyone owns a copy of Word or other Word-compatible software. But what if your file isn’t in Word — what if it’s in InDesign format? Most translators don’t work with InDesign or other DTP software. After all, they’re translators, not graphic designers, and those can be very different, specialized skill sets. So while a translator might translate the text in your InDesign file, you need a skilled desktop publisher to know how to place that text back in the file without ruining the layout. Why is Desktop Publishing Important in Translation?  Translated content poses specific design related challenges. For example: Many languages tend to expand when you translate them — often by 20-30%. So while you might have 500 words of English text in your source file, that same paragraph in Spanish could end up being over 600 words. And if those original 500 words already took up an entire page in your InDesign file, trying to cram 100 extra words into that same space can present some challenges. Challenges may apply to words used in images or logos. A good desktop publisher will know how to tweak the layout, typeface, font size, and various other factors to keep that text from running onto the next page and pushing both pages’ formatting into disarray. While English speakers read left to right other languages like Arabic or Farsi are read right to left. Other languages, like Chinese, Japanese and Korean are written in columns and read top to bottom. Skilled DTP practitioners can ensure that these and other variances are accommodated, not as an after thought, but as a central component of the project. What Can You Do With Desktop Publishing? Ultimately DTP becomes involved with a translation project when the appearance of the content is as important as the content itself. This is often the case when translating marketing collateral, websites or other digital media where aesthetics and presentation matter. A website that was carefully designed for the English language may not be as accommodating for other languages that demand a drastically different layout. Additionally with DTP adjustments can be made to address cultural variances for uses of color and imagery. In short, DTP is the visual component that is essential for maintaining the visual integrity of your content from one language to another. How Does Desktop Publishing Work With PDFs? Even when a desktop publisher has all the proper source files to work from — which, in the case of InDesign, also includes any fonts, links, and images that the main file references — DTP can be a pretty involved process. But what if you don’t have those source files in the first place? What if you only have a PDF? In a perfect world, you’d always have access to the source files used to create that PDF. But in reality, things get lost.  Maybe your company’s guide was designed by someone who’s no longer working there, and nobody knows what he or she did with the source files. Whatever the reason, all you have now is a PDF that you need translated, and PDFs by their nature aren’t designed to be editable. But solutions are available so the quality of your publication doesn’t have to suffer. Sometimes a PDF can be converted to an easy-to-use format like Word. There are plenty of software options that claim to excel at that, but in reality those conversions can look vastly inferior to the original PDF. And if you need a print-ready translation, that just won’t cut it. At the end of the day, Word just isn’t made to be a desktop publishing platform. For any sophisticated formatting, you need software like InDesign or FrameMaker that’s designed to handle such things. Another option is to have a desktop publisher rebuild your source file in a format like InDesign, using your PDF as a reference, and then have that translated. That way you get a print-ready translation when you’re done as well as an editable, professionally laid out version of your source file. Of course, recreating a source file takes extra time, and because the world is round, more time means more money. Desktop Publishing in the Translation Process So the next time you need a document translated, think about whether you also need it desktop published. Maybe the layout isn’t important to you, in which case a translation company can often return a converted Word file or just the text itself in a spreadsheet without you incurring any DTP fees. But if you do need your translation in a print-ready layout, or if you want your translation provider to work in specialized software like InDesign, you’ll probably need desktop publishing. Most translation companies are happy to provide quotes for such services, so don’t be afraid to ask — it’s the best way to ensure that your translation projects look as good as they read.

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