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What is Back Translation and Why is it Necessary?

What is Back Translation and Why is it Necessary?
on September, 23 2016

Generally, translation work involves the transfer of written text from the source language to its equivalent in the target language. Translation considers the users and readers of the translated document, the nuances of the language, jargons and idioms as well as the culture of the country of the target language.

Translation also makes use of subject matter experts to ensure the accuracy of the translated text, based on profession or industry where the translation will be used.

In the process of finishing the translation prior to client submission, the translated document goes through rigorous review, with a proofreader checking the document for errors to ensure its accuracy, among other quality control processes a translation provider implement.

Although this is one of the finals steps before the translation is sent to client, there are instances when accuracy needs to be re-checked. In this case back translation is performed.

Back translation

Technically, back translation is used to compare the translated document with the original for accuracy and quality. It is used to help in the evaluation of the compatibility of meaning between the source and target languages.

When a back translation is requested by client, the translation provider will have a different or independent translator who has not seen or worked on the original text do a translation back into the original language, for example, English to Spanish to English. The independent translator must be as literal as possible when creating the back translation to achieve an accurate description of the translated words' precise meaning.

Because of the natural differences in languages, one cannot expect that the back translation will be 100% the same as the original source. Due to the nuances of language, back translation can help highlight errors, ambiguities or confusion that may appear. It can also help improve a translation's validity, accuracy and readability.

When is back translation needed?

Often, back translation is used to comply with regulatory or legal requirement. For clinical trials for example, most Ethics committees and Institutional Review Boards or IRBs require certificates of accuracy and back translations to be submitted along with translated documents.

This is to protect materials made available to patients and conversely, protect consumers and patients from erroneous information from life-changing products that directly affect the well being and lives of people around the world. It is a way to ensure the highest quality of all translated materials used for this purpose.

It is also required by regulatory review processes and review boards, like for pharmaceuticals, in order to confirm promotional and advertising claims.

Who needs/uses back translation?

Not many clients ask for back translation. One of the reasons is because it adds more time and expense to the project. 

Despite this, there are many industries where back translation is vital. When there's high-value content, it is often necessary to have back translation. Typically, it is used by medical device companies and pharmaceutical companies.

Moreover, clinical research organizations and others use back translation for everything that contains high risk or sensitive materials, including but not limited to reports, assessments, questionnaires, surveys, protocols, forms (including informed and medical consent) and marketing materials. 

It is used to determine the accurate translation of lab notes, ingredients, scientific data and packaging. It is beneficial for companies doing global market research to ensure that the results are accurate by checking inconsistencies in questionnaire translation.

Back translation is effective for legal translation, such as multilingual contracts, where big issues could arise due to low-quality translation and miscommunications. Instruction manuals and restaurant menus can benefit from back translation as well. Back translation is more cost efficient than having materials reprinted, getting a lawsuit due to mistranslations and losing customers as well. 

The method can be very handy when translating legal and technical documents. When properly done, it sees to it that text has been rendered accurately into the target language. The translation of legal documents is very tricky and requires clarity as even a minor error can have huge repercussions. Back translation can pinpoint ambivalent or potentially confusing language.

There are a few examples where back translation may be effective or beneficial. In 1840, the bilingual Treaty of Waitangi was drawn up between the Maori chiefs and England. Had back translation been utilized to review the treaty, New Zealand might not have been founded. In the English version, the chiefs of the Maori tribes ceded sovereignty over the land to England. However, the Maori version stated that the tribes only gave the conquerors permission to use and administer their land in exchange for protection from other invaders.

The violent conflicts because of that lasted for more than 20 years, with England coming out the victor in the end.

It can backfire as well. Mark Twain was a back translator. His first success as a writer was from his short story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" that was published in 1865. It was a story about a gambler, Jim Smiley. Twain discovered a French translation of his short story.

He painstakingly back translated the French translation into English and published it, showing the world that the translator did not really translate the work but rather just jumbled the words, coming up with something that did not resemble the original one bit.

Not all forms of translation need back translations. If your document has passed the three standard phases – translation, editing and proofreading – done by a trusted professional translator, there is no need to have it double-checked. This particularly applies to short translations where the instances of being misinterpreted are unlikely to happen.

Image credit: nicolasmenijes / 123RF

Bernadine Racoma

Bernadine is a writer, researcher, professional and multi-awarded blogger and new media consultant. She brings with her a rich set of experience in the corporate world, as well as in the field of research and writing. Having taken early retirement after working as an international civil servant and traveling the world for 22 years, she has aggressively pursued her main interest in writing and research. You can also find Bernadine Racoma at .

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