Back Translation: When Is It Appropriate?

Back Translation

The ASTM Standard Guide for Quality Assurance in Translation defines back translation as “retranslation of a translated text back into its source language”; the Guide also explains that back translation will not result in a text that is identical to the source text, and furthermore, a back translation is not necessarily a good indicator of the quality of the translation.

website document translation

What is the most efficient check for quality?

Occasionally, clients ask language service providers for back translation. Much discussion has been devoted to this topic, and the general consensus in the business community is that re-translation of the text back to its original language to check translation accuracy is a waste of time and money. The most efficient way to assure that a translation is correct is to have the translated text reviewed by another translator who reads a completed translation against the source text to validate the accuracy of the final target text, and gives detailed feedback. In the translation world, this step is also called editing. To achieve publication quality, it is advisable to have the translation proofread by yet another reader, whose task is to find typographical errors and verify coherence and readability in the target language, without reference to the source text.

Reviewing/editing – and often proofreading – are typically included in the per-word fee charged by a translation service provider. Back translation, on the other hand, requires an entirely new team of translators and typically results in a text that can deviate significantly from the original, even though the translation itself may be quite accurate. This leaves the client bewildered while no true insight as to whether the translation is good or not has been achieved.

When to use it

Back translation is typically used in highly regulated industries such as life sciences, and is followed by an extensive collaborative effort of all parties involved to eliminate even the slightest chance of mistranslation. Unless it is being used as a quality control step in addition to editing, it is usually best to avoid this costly, and often times flawed, exercise.

Another instance in which back translation is useful is for “transcreation” projects, where slogans, taglines, and pitches are not translated literally but rather recreated using similar imagery in the target language. Back translation can help the client conceptualize the slight difference in meaning that transcreation may produce.

To sum it up:

  • Ask your language service provider about quality control procedures
  • Back translation can be helpful when working in highly regulated industry or for translation involving brand names, slogans, or taglines