Back Translation: What Is It and When Do You Need It?

July 1, 2022
Back Translation: What Is It and When Do You Need It?

Today, I’m going to explore the topic of back translation. From a quick back translation definition to a detailed look at its value and use cases, this article will cover everything you need to know in order to use back translation to meet your legal, regulatory and quality obligations.

 

Back Translation Definition: What Is Back Translation?

 

Let’s start at the beginning. What is back translation? In simple terms, back translation is the conversion of a translated text back to its original translation. A translation of the translation, if you will.

 

Say you have a document to translate from English to Spanish. Your translator beavers away at it and delivers the Spanish translation. So far, so ordinary. However, with back translation, a different translator then translates the Spanish translation back into English. You can then compare the English back translation with the original document.

 

Also known as back-translation, backward translation, backwards translation and reverse translation, back translation is a fairly literal form of translation that focuses on conveying the meaning of the document. The goal is not a perfectly worded, polished translation with localized idioms. The purpose is to check that the meaning of the original document has not been lost in translation – that the translation faithfully and accurately relays the original information.

 

There are numerous reasons why companies use back translation, from quality assurance and risk reduction to meeting legal obligations. I’ll take a look at these in depth below, but first let’s explore the back translation process.

 

The Back Translation Process

 

The back translation process is similar to regular translation, in that the translator converts the document from one language to another. Yet there are also several notable differences between regular translation and back translation. These relate to both the back translation process and the translation itself, as I’ve mentioned above.

 

Translation

 

Using the back translation method, the translator provides a literal translation of the document, rather than a translation that has been moulded and/or localized to suit the intended audience. That’s because the focus of the back translation is to convey very clearly the meaning of the text, so that it can be compared to the meaning of the original document.

 

The purpose of this is to understand how closely the translation reflects the original document and conveys its meaning to the new audience. This is not something that most translation clients can usually tell. After all, you tend to use a translation agency because you don’t speak the target language yourself. This fact makes it tricky to assess the quality of the translation. However, by using the back translation method and then comparing the original document to the back translation, you can gauge how closely the translation mirrors the meaning of the original text.

 

Comparison

 

When it comes to that comparison – between the original document and the back translation – you aren’t simply given the two documents and left to decide how well they compare. Instead, the individual who carries out the back translation (and I’ll talk more below about who is appropriate for that task) will provide you with a report that flags up any inconsistencies or ambiguities between the two documents.

 

This structured comparison means you can clearly see where further work is needed on the translation in order to ensure that it perfectly conveys the meaning of your original text.

 

Reconciliation

 

The reconciliation process is the part of the back translation method where the translator supports you to amend the translation to ensure that it precisely and accurately reflects your source document.

 

Using the comparison report, the translator will work closely with you to ensure that each discrepancy that has been identified is retranslated and ironed out. By doing so, they can ensure that the translation truly and accurately conveys the meaning of the original document.

 

The final translation that results from the reconciliation stage of the back translation process is a polished, accurate translation that you can have full confidence in.

 

Who Is Qualified to Undertake the Back Translation Process?

 

The individual who works on your backward translation needs to be suitably qualified and in possession of relevant subject matter expertise – just like the translator who worked on the translation of your original document.

 

They also need to be a different translator to the person who worked on the translation from the source language to the target language in the first place. There are a couple of reasons for this. The main one is that the back translator should have no previous connection with the document being translated. This allows them to undertake the back translation objectively and without any unconscious bias.

 

The second reason is that it’s best practice to use a native speaker of the target language. Let’s take the English to Spanish back translation example I used above. It is necessary to use a native Spanish speaker to translate the document in the first place. Then, the process requires a native English speaker to undertake the English back translation.

 

Of course, sourcing two different translators doesn’t mean you can use the same translation agency to undertake both the initial translation and the back translation. Indeed, using the same translation agency saves you the headache of trying to negotiate between different translators and/or agencies over who is responsible for which elements of the reconciliation process.

 

Using a translation agency with a project manager who oversees the back translation process comes in very handy in this respect. The project manager can work with both translators and guide the reconciliation process to ensure that the changes to the initial translation are implemented in a structured and accurate fashion.

 

When Should You Use the Back Translation Method?

 

When using back translation, the translations are good if you need to meet legal or regulatory requirements. The method is also an excellent means of quality assurance if you don’t speak the target language. You can use it to reduce the risk attached to reaching out to your customers using a translated document that they cannot read. As such, it’s a great way to achieve peace of mind.

 

In sectors where accuracy and precision are essential, whether due legal reasons, reasons of health and safety or any other cause, the value of back translation very quickly becomes clear. I’ll look at a few of the industries that most often use back translation below – though this list is certainly not exhaustive – before providing a few brief back translation examples.

 

Medical

 

If you work in a business that deals with translating medical documents on a regular basis, you’ll understand the importance of accurate translation. A mistranslation in the healthcare sector can be a literal matter of life and death.

 

Back translation for medical purposes can reduce the risk associated with inaccurate translation. That said, a translation doesn’t even need to be inaccurate to cause problems in the medical industry. Sometimes just ambiguity in a translation can be enough to spell disaster.

 

By using the back translation method, medical and pharmaceutical sector professionals can ensure that they are providing precise, accurate information in their target language(s). Not only does this mean they can sleep better at night, they can also ensure they meet regulatory requirements.

 

Legal

 

It’s fair to say that legal document translation is one of the most sensitive fields in translation. And, as with medical translation, only a handful experts are qualified to undertake it. That’s because legal translation requires an enormous amount of subject matter expertise.

 

Of course, legal translation encompasses a huge variety of tasks. Certainly, many tasks that require a legal translation will be absolutely fine without a back translation. Others, however, will most definitely need to follow the back translation process, for both legal and regulatory reasons.

 

Financial 

 

Financial translation is another field where accuracy and precision are extremely important. As such, there are plenty of circumstances when financial document translation requires the quality assurance that back translation provides.

 

Translators working on such documents need to be native linguists with extensive financial expertise. If technology also comes into play, then fintech-specific translation expertise will be necessary.

 

Other Technical Content

 

Do you work with lots of technical content? Whether its scientific papers, technical manuals, user guides, API documentation, SDK documentation, test schedules or any other kind of technical documents that cross your desk on their way overseas, your technical document translation could likely benefit from back translation.

 

By comparing the meaning of the translation with the original document, through the back translation method, you can ensure that your translations aren’t going to lead you into any issues – from simple misunderstandings to those using your technology, resulting in minor reputational damage, to major mishaps that end up in court, with all manner of associated disruption and expense.

 

Back Translation Examples

 

I’ve included the medical, legal, financial and technical sectors above in looking at which industries can benefit most from back translation. In a moment I want to consider a few situations in which backwards translation is actually unlikely to be useful. But first, I thought it worth including a few back translation examples to help fully show off the method’s benefits.

 

Let’s start with medical back translation. Say your company has created a new insulin pump that you plan to sell across Europe. Clearly, the instructions for its use need to be crystal clear, no matter which language they are in.

 

The same applies to pharmaceutical uses of back translation. Does your company manufacture medicines? If so, you’ll need to convey very precise dosage instructions, details of potential side effects and so on, not just to ensure patient safety but also to gain regulatory approval in each market. When these are translated into other languages, they need to mean precisely the same thing as they did in the source document.

 

If you’re translating a legal contract, it’s again essential that nothing gets lost in translation. Any ambiguity or mistakes in the translation could mean that the parties signing that contract are committing to different things. That’s the ideal breeding ground for a court case – potentially including the translation agency as well. All of which could be headed off by using the back translation method to ensure that the meaning of the translated contract perfectly mirrors that of the original.

 

Now consider a financial translation – of documents leading up to the merger of two international companies. Again, accuracy is paramount, meaning potential disaster could be headed off by using a back translation service.

 

Are There Times When Back Translation Isn’t Helpful?

 

Each of the above back translation examples showcases just how valuable a process it can be – and what immense peace of mind it can bring. But there are also times when the back translation process won’t be suitable.

 

More creative translations, for example, won’t fare well when it comes to back translation – but nor should they.

 

Take the example of marketing translation work. The goal is to deliver your messaging to foreign audiences in a way that will resonate with them. Often, this requires the translator to take creative liberties with your original copy. They will reshape and localize it. They may even use transcreation to move away from the original copy and instead convey the spirit of that copy.

 

All of this is entirely acceptable – and usually desirable – during the marketing translation process. It can help you connect more deeply with your target audiences. It can also render back translation pretty pointless, as delivering literal back translations of these types of creative translations will be ineffective. The literal meaning will differ due to the creative approach that has been (quite rightly) applied to the task.  

 

Comparing Back Translation to Other Quality Assurance Methods

 

I’ve pointed out the benefits of back translation as a quality assurance (QA) process, but it’s not the only way to assess the quality of your translation. In some cases, it will be sufficient to rely on your translation agency’s internal QA process to ensure the quality of your translation. Alternatively, you could use a translator (or another bilingual individual) to judge the accuracy of your translation, if you can find someone with the relevant subject matter expertise for your content.

 

Whether you rely on the above methods or opt to use back translation will depend entirely on the nature of your documents, their intended audience, legal and regulatory requirements and a range of other factors.

 

Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Back Translation

 

If you have decided to use back translation, then it’s time to ensure you get the best out of the process. One key point to remember is to use different translators for the initial translation and the back translation – and to ensure that the individual carrying out the backward translation has no connection with the source document.

 

Also essential is factoring in sufficient time and budget for the back translation process. In time terms, you’ll need to allow at least double the time that a single-way translation would take. That’s because your translation agency will be undertaking two consecutive translations. You’ll also need to allow time for the comparison and reconciliation process. If you’re in a hurry to get to market, this means it’s important to get the translation process moving at as early a stage as possible.

 

In terms of budget, again you’re committing to more than double the workload. As such, you can expect to more than double your budget, although as translation rates vary from language to language, the calculation is rarely quite that simple. This is a topic I’ve explored in detail recently – you can click the link below for more information on translation rates and why they vary.

 

Read more: Examining the Costs Behind Translation Rates in 2022

 

Wrap Up: Is Back Translation Worth the Time?

 

Hopefully the details above have enabled you to decide whether back translation would or would not suit your upcoming translation projects. In a nutshell, if accuracy and precision are important to you in terms of conveying the meaning of your document, then back translation could well help you ensure that your translation quality is everything you need it to be.

 

Want to know more? Then get in touch to grill the Tomedes team about the finer points of back translation.