The Back-Translation Dilemma

Emanuel Longo | February 9, 2015


What is Back-Translation?

lost in translationPerforming a back-translation into the language of the original text serves to reveal mistranslations, omissions or incorrect terminology in the translated text. The goal is to then compare the back-translation to the original text, in order to assess the accuracy of the translation. The medical and life sciences fields may require this process due to industry regulations, since precise accuracy takes precedence over fluidity and readability for the intended user. Independent review boards or ethics committees may require back-translations of their documents, especially in high-risk situations. Back-translations are primarily intended for extremely literal text, but not for content comprised of subtleties.

What are the Disadvantages?

Unfortunately, given the inherently nuanced and subjective nature of language, back-translations are often unreliable. When referencing unique text (either the original, OR the translation), producing identical wording from different linguists is considered almost impossible. Translation is always subject to interpretation and varies on the translator’s stylistic approach and word choice. With endless synonym and phrasing possibilities, congruence is difficult to achieve!

The less obvious issue is that a back-translation is costly and time-consuming. This is because the amount of translation required becomes doubled. Inevitably, the back-translation will differ from the original English text, and this can cause needless headaches and confusion for a client. This is especially true if you don’t speak the foreign language yourself; it’s difficult to wrap your head around why Japanese speakers may communicate a certain concept in a completely unfamiliar way. The process can lead to unnecessary back-and-forth between the linguists, language service provider, and end client – resembling a clumsy game of “telephone”! Ultimately, you aren’t left with any sense as to how the translation will actually sound to your intended audience. You also don’t gain any true indication of the translation’s quality.

Does Back-Translation Work for your Content?

It probably goes without saying that there are certain types of content for which back-translation simply doesn’t make sense. For instance, your marketing or labeling material may need a particular tone and style for the target market. Or, your business correspondence includes cultural-specific formalities in the translated versions. It’s best to leave this creative license in the hands of expert translators and reviewers who are the most familiar with effective advertising and communications in their native countries and regions.

How to Reach your Goal

If your objective is to evaluate the quality of the original translation, back-translation is not the ideal practice. Instead of requesting a back-translation to verify the accuracy, a better solution is a third party review. Review is less expensive than a back-translation, and will more efficiently solve any issues, since the reviewer will make corrections to the translation itself. In comparison, a back-translation doesn’t help improve the translation, rather, it merely detects potential mistranslations or omissions.

An independent review of your translation will compare it against the original text, thus ensuring that your message will resonate well with your target market!

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