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The Option of Back Translation

November 18th, 2013

Generally speaking, the most common translation requests we receive at CommGap from our clients go something like this: “We currently have a document written in Language A. Some of our customers only read Language B. We’d like to have this document translated from Language A to Language B.”

But how does a client really know if an accurate translation has been done? One of the ways this occurs is through feedback from the target audience: But what if such feedback is not a possibility, and a precise, accurate translation the first time around is the only option?

This is where back translation comes in. Back translation, simply put, is when a document is translated into a language, and then translated back into the original language by a different translator. Compared to the above example, it involves translating a document from Language A to Language B, and then translating it from Language B back into Language A. While the act of translating a document back into the original language might seem redundant, it is used as a method of quality assurance with two main purposes: To make sure that a translation has been done, and to make sure that that translation is accurate.

But this method has its limits, and it’s important to keep these limits in mind. First, the original text and the back translation will be different. At this point, the document will have passed through the hands of a number of linguists, depending on the number of reviewers involved in each translation direction. Not only will the syntax and style be different, but even some important vocabulary may be slightly altered in order to help in readability for the target audience.

Secondly, if you make changes to the translation solely based on differences you identify in the back translation, you will most likely cause much more harm than good. Doing so would be creating a word-for-word translation of your original document, and it is widely known that verbatim translations are rarely accurate ones. The person reviewing the differences between the original document and the back translation should be a trained language professional who can better identify which differences are simply a matter of style and should be left alone, and which differences are significant and need to be addressed.

Back translation is expensive, as you are doubling the amount of work originally performed. Thus, it is important to know when it is feasible as a QA method. Technical manuals and clinical trials are more suited for back translation, as there is a specific vocabulary to be used in these documents, and back translation can help a client know that this vocabulary has been used. These types of documents have less colloquialisms and human-determined style that could be altered in translation. For other fields, back translation isn’t quite as useful or efficient, as it can only verify that a translation has been performed–that the Arabic script you received from a translator isn’t just a random assortment of words.

While most clients prefer the less expensive option of having a third-party professional linguist look over a translation for final approval, back translation serves in a limited number of circumstances as a way of making sure you are getting the translation you need, and it may be a helpful option if you keep the above factors in mind.

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