Back Translation: What Is It & Why Is It Crucial?




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    Generally, translation work involves the transfer of a text from one language into another. Translation considers the audience of the translated document, the nuances of both languages as well as the culture of the country of the target language. In the process of finishing the translation, the translated text goes through rigorous review, with a proofreader checking the document for errors to ensure its accuracy. Although this is one of the final steps of translation prior to client submission, there are cases when accuracy needs to be rechecked. In this case, back translation is performed.

    The Concept of Back Translation

    The process behind the term ‘back translation’ is simple yet efficient. In brief, back translation can be defined as a process according to which translation services providers interpret a text previously translated into the target language back to the original language. The first translation and the back translation are then compared and reconciled to test the quality and the accuracy of the original translation. Here, the fact that a back translation cannot be expected to reproduce the exact wording of the original text should be kept in mind as there are a lot of words and notions that exist only in one particular language and have no analogs in other languages.

    The Cases for Back Translation

    Back translation is usually performed when translating, or to be more concrete, transcreating, sensitive texts where there are potential literary issues arising between cultures or languages that need to be considered and thoroughly checked before publication.

    Back translation serves as a proofreading ‘filter’ through which inaccuracies will not readily pass. It can be invaluable in industries where impeccable levels of accuracy and detail are required such as in legal translation, medical translation, and financial translation.

    Back translation can also be invaluable when used in line with international market research. For example, in translated questionnaires, inaccuracies could potentially affect consumer’s understanding of the questions and therefore negatively impact on results of researches.

    The Process of Back Translation

    The process of back translation isn’t as daunting as it sounds. Here is how it is performed:

    Step 1: The back translation is usually performed by an independent translation services provider with equal knowledge of the subject but with no access to the original text.

    Step 2: Once the back translation task has been completed, a reviewer compares both the original and the back translations and marks any potential issues.

    Step 3: As it is never clear whether the issues stem from the original translation or from the back translation, the reviewer sends his report first to the original translator, and in case the original translator insists that he is correct, the back translator is consulted until eventually all issues have been sorted out.

    Step 4: The final translation is sent to the client, along with the back translation.

    The Pros and Cons of Back Translation

    There are some noteworthy benefits to using back translation. The followings are some of them:

    • Ensuring the highest quality of translations.
    • Ensuring that facts are not misinterpreted in a translation.
    • Ensuring key point and statistics are quoted.
    • Allowing to pick up translational errors prior to publication and therefore
    • allowing to save time, money, and brand reputation.

    But just like everything else, using back translation has its downsides. They include:

    • The cost of back translation often equals that of the original translation; therefore, it should be used when 100% precision is required.
    • When requesting back translations, it is of significant importance to make sure that the back translator has the same cultural knowledge and context of what is required as the original translator.
    • Slang and humor are often completely misunderstood during the back translation process leading to some pretty funny but unfair results.

    To sum up, because of its high cost, back translation is, of course, not among the most frequently requested services for the purchaser of normal translation services; however, it is highly recommended for high-risk document translations such as legal, medical, and financial documents as well as market research.

    Ievgeniia Gres

    About Ievgeniia Gres

    Professional English to Russian/Ukrainian translator and transcreator. Amateur piano player. Ballroom dancing fan. Author of the FreelanceLife Blog.

    4 thoughts on “Back Translation: What Is It & Why Is It Crucial?

    1. Hi Ievgeniia,

      Interesting article about a niche translation service.

      I can think of several cases where I needed back translations. The most frequent ones were concerning marketing materials that were written directly in the target language by a translator with copywriting skills. In this case, the requestor just wanted to have an idea of what the text said. The back translation was done by the author of the text and the requestor understood that any language flavor will be lost.

      A back translation is for sure more effective than google translate. 🙂

      1. Thanks, Claudia!

        For me too, back translation for marketing materials is, so far, the most popular type of this service. My clients often ask to back translate an ad/slogan transcreated by me or someone else to make sure that the main idea behind that ad or slogan was not lost during the process of transcreation.

    2. Hi Ievgeniia,
      it’s exciting to learn that back translation is a real service in our industry, I haven’t encountered any LSP requesting this service in a “formal” way yet. But you’re right, it can be very functional in measuring the effectiveness of a translated text. Of course, it should be performed by professionals who are aware of all the implications, because it can be dangerous as well.

    3. Thanks for the interesting article. I’ve been asked to back translate some stuff for medical ads and I thought it was a bit of an exaggeration. I can see now why it was necessary. 😉

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