Converting PDFs (for free) without losing the formatting — or your temper.

I  took part in a conversation on Twitter recently about converting files from PDF to Word without losing the formatting. In this case, it was for translation purposes but there are plenty of other circumstances where this would come in handy. Filling in forms sent as PDFs, for example (so without having to print them out and fill them in by hand).

I use Nitro Software’s PDF to Word web-based application for this. It’s free, works well and is a real time-saver.

The application is easy to use. From the PDF-to-Word website you just choose and upload the file you want to convert, select whether you want it in RTF or DOC format and type in your email address. Once the conversion’s been done, you’ll get an email with your Word file — complete with tables, charts and graphics.

Here are a couple of screenshots of the Word version of a PDF I converted recently:

Screenshot of Piano Giovani – PDF to Word (1)

Screenshot of Piano Giovani – PDF to Word (1)

You might need to tweak the document a wee bit but in my experience most of the formatting is preserved. In the example above all the text in the table is editable but that in the pie chart, and in the logos obviously, is not.

You may also have problems with speed once you start working on the file if the document is very complex and image-rich. But that’s not the fault of the file conversion (it helps if you don’t have a million browser windows open plus TweetDeck running in the background. Not that I’d ever be guilty of that). PDF to Word doesn’t work with all files — locked ones, for example.

I’m sure there are other good PDF conversion applications available — any recommendations?

By Marian Dougan

Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

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  1. Thanks for the tip, I definitely need a converter that faithfully reproduces PDF docs into Word. Todate, I’ve been using Zilla PDF to TXT converter, mainly to extract word contents into TXT in order to translate them into SDL Studio without being bothered by tag settings. This freeware is also great when dealing with the conversion of batch PDF files.

    1. Thanks for that – it’s always good to find out about new freeware apps.
      I use Nitro’s online converter because I haven’t found a desktop one that can be used on a Mac. Their professional desktop version can handle batch files but it costs $99.99 (and again, isn’t Mac-compatible).

  2. The only problem with online file conversion solutions is that I would be concerned with confidentiality – especially if I have signed an NDA with my client. I prefer a stand-alone tool on my computer like PDF Converter or ABBYY FineReader. Sure, they cost money, but I consider it investing in my business.

    1. Thanks, Jill.
      Yes, I fully agree. You do need to be careful with online apps and confidentiality is clearly a prime concern. I’ve only used Nitro’s application to translate documents that were already published – so the confidentiality aspect hasn’t arisen so far.
      I’ve looked into the desktop versions but the ones I’ve found so far aren’t available for the Mac. If anyone knows of a Mac-compatible version – let us know!

  3. How long does PDF to Word typically take? That is, how long from receiving the completion message (“Your file was successfully uploaded and will be converted soon. Please check your mailbox shortly for your new file.”) does it take to appear in your mail box?

    Interestingly enough, upon finishing this comment, I received the email with the zip file attached. I extracted it and was pleased to see that PDF to Word converted my PDF to a “.doc” (Word 97 -2003) rather than a “.docx” (Word 2007). I was also pleased to see that it had converted all 329 pages of the .pdf form of the book, including the cover, footnotes, adds, and back cover! This might just be the reason it took 15 minutes… (haha). Thank you so much for finding this!

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