What is Back Translation? Why Is Back Translation Important?

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Written by: pTranslate Contributors


Back Translation, also known as “Reverse Translation”, is the process of re-translating a translated document from the target language to the source language. Usually Back Translation will be performed by a second translator who has no prior involvement in the first translation of the document.

We can take an English to French translation project for a financial document as an example.

The document was originally in English. After receiving the French version, the client requests that another translator performs a Back Translation from French to English so that they can easily understand the French version and decide if the translation is of high quality.

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Why is Back Translation Important?

Back Translation is more than just back-and-forth translation. It adds another layer of quality assurance to the translation project.

1. Back Translation allows the client to better understand the translated version

Specialized, sensitive documents demand the highest level of precision in translation. In fields such as Medicine, Market Research, Engineering, there is absolutely no room for error. The meaning of the translated text should be as close as possible to the source text.

The problem is that not all clients know the target language. They aren’t sure that what they received is high-quality, so they need Back Translation to know that both versions have enough similarities.

2. Back Translation allows the client to spot nuanced adjustments in translation.

When working documents that have complex terminology that require advanced subject knowledge of its field, one single term mistranslated can lead to disastrous consequences and misunderstandings.

However, many translators approach translation with a flexible mindset. Paraphrasing is common in the Translation industry. It is when the translator doesn’t strictly follow the sentence structures in the source document but makes a lot of changes where necessary to create a better text flow. If not careful, the translator can unintentionally omit important nuances from the document.

Let’s take another example in the Legal area.

We have a product whose label reads “This product was intended to provide the user with…”

However, when translating it to Spanish, the translator wrongly translated it to “Este producto le brinda al usario…”

The Back Translation for that would be “This product offers the user…”

It’s easy to notice that in the English version, the manufacturer only claims that they “intend to provide the user”, not making a claim that they can “offer the use” with a particular feature.

This mistranslation can potentially lead to a lawsuit.

That is why clients want Back Translation. They demand that the file be translated verbatim. Every single word must be translated as they are, no adjustments made. By doing that, the client believes that they can spot mistakes or inaccuracies in the translated file better and inform the translator on the parts that they need to improve on.

3. Back Translation is crucial for Marketing Translation

Marketing Translation is a highly sensitive area in the Translation world. When translating advertising copies or marketing materials, translators have a lot of wiggle room, which means that they can be fairly creative with their translation. They don’t have to strictly follow the original document and translate everything verbatim. This is why clients of Marketing translation worry that the final translation may contain words and phrases that portray a misleading image of their brand.

Back Translation is their solution.

In this case, Back Translation isn’t done with the intention to check for accuracy, but rather to get a “feel” of what is being said in the target language. This is the most common use of Back Translation.

For example, iPod’s original message is ‘Small talk’. In Latin American countries, the slogan is translated into “Mira quién habla” (Look who’s talking). If the client doesn’t know what that means, they will ask for a Back Translation to make sure that the message is acceptable. Of course, this is only an oversimplified example of the use of Back Translation in Marketing. Back Translators for Marketing copies usually have to back translate a much larger word count at the request of their client.

The Challenges of Doing Back Translation

Of course, Back Translation has its downside. In fact, Back Translation is not that commonly requested outside of the Marketing niche. Even in the Marketing Translation niche, Back Translation is mostly used to get a “feel” for the translation, not as a full quality assurance process. When a client wants someone to check for the translation quality, they’re better off finding a professional editor.

So, what are the challenges of Back Translation?

The Back Translation quality depends on the first translation’s quality: Because the Back Translator is required to re-translate the document verbatim, they have little to no room for adjustments. This means that they have to translate exactly what they are given, and sometimes that means that they have to translate the mistranslated words of the first translator.

Now it’s the problem of deciding who is the bad translator. Is it the first translator that made the mistake, or is it the back translator that didn’t translate everything literally?

For example, let’s take the expression “bi-monthly”.

“Bi-monthly” either means twice a month or happening once every 2 months. It’s up to the first translator to decide which meaning to take.

The back translator is influenced by the first translator’s choice.

And what if the first translator’s choice doesn’t align with what the client, or the back translator expect? And what if there’s not only one, but dozens of words with complicated meaning like that? A lot of problems and misunderstandings can arise from here.

Similarly, legal documents tend to have a very nuanced use of words, and back translation only further complicates the already intricate nature of legal translation.

It’s worth noting that Translation is not an exact science like Engineering. There is always room for change. There are tens to hundreds of translation possibilities for a sentence, or a paragraph, and you will almost ever arrive at an exact back translation for your document.

However, aside from the potential misunderstandings that back translation can cause in complex documents, there aren’t many challenges to Back Translation. In fact, it can be a powerful tool to simply check the nuances in your Marketing translation.

When should and shouldn't you ask for a Back Translation service?

You should ask for a Back Translation service when:

– Your document is sensitive (Medical, Legal, Engineering, etc.)

– Your document has high visibility and high risk (seen by many people)

– You want to check the quality of the translation

– You want to make sure that you understand all of the nuanced adjustments of your translation

– You want to “get” the feel of your translation

– You don’t want the translator to stray too far away from your original content

– You want to achieve the highest level of accuracy and precision. No small details can go unignored.

You shouldn’t ask for a Back Translation when:

– Your document is not of high importance (for example: low-visibility document, internal documents, etc.)

– You find an editor or proofreader who can help you provide another layer of quality assurance

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In short, Back Translation is the process of re-translating a translated document from the target language back to the original language. It’s to help the client get a feel for the translated content, or provide them with extra quality assurance. By comparing the back translation to the original text, the quality and accuracy of the translation can be confirmed.

Do you have any experience with back translation? Have you ever worked on, or got involved in a back translation project? Feel free to share your thoughts with us!

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