Back translation: What it is, benefits, limitations

back translation

Back translation, also known as reverse translation or re-translating, is a quality control method used in translation. This process flips the script on a typical translation process, because instead of starting with the source text, it begins with the translated version itself. This usually involves a fresh pair of eyes – a new translator who wasn’t involved in the initial translation – and a budget increase for the project. We’ll discuss all this, and more, below.

The process of back translation

Reverse translation works in a very simple way: the original (source) text is translated into the target language by a translator. Then, a different translator, ideally unaware of the original source text, translates the target text back into the source language. This “blindness” helps ensure they focus on conveying the meaning in the target text, not simply replicating the original wording.

Then comes the comparison and analysis phase: the original source text and the back-translated version are carefully compared. This analysis looks for:

  • Meaning discrepancies. This is where you need to ask “Are there any significant differences in meaning between the original text and the back translation?”
  • Clarity and accuracy. The back translation should accurately reflect the original content without introducing ambiguity.
  • Cultural appropriateness. Here, you need to check whether or not the initial translation considers cultural nuances that might be missed in a direct translation.

Based on the findings from the comparison, the initial translation is revised to correct any inaccuracies and to ensure that the meaning and nuances of the original text are accurately conveyed in the target language.

When to re-translate

Reverse translation can be particularly useful in the process of translating legal, medical, and financial documents and materials. In this case, you want the translated version to convey the exact meaning and intent of the original document, to minimize any discrepancies or even legal risks.

When localizing marketing materials, software, or educational materials, for example, back translation may prove invaluable for identifying areas where the translated text might be ambiguous or culturally insensitive. Back translation ensures the translated text is easy to understand for the target users.

Pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, and other highly regulated industries face strict compliance requirements. They will use back translation to provide an extra layer of quality control and reduces the risk of errors in translated materials.

Furthermore, reverse translation can be an effective method for assessing the accuracy of machine translation (MT) systems. This approach provides a systematic way to evaluate whether an MT output maintains the meaning, context, and nuances of the original text. However, it should be used in conjunction with other evaluation methods to get a clear picture of the translation quality.

Benefits of back translation

First off, by comparing the original text to the back-translated version, translators can identify and rectify mistakes or misunderstandings that might have slipped through in the initial translation. This is particularly valuable for the various categories of documents or legal contracts mentioned above, where precision is essential.

When dealing with complex projects or high volumes of text, you need an additional quality control measure. Back translation provides just that, because it helps identify inconsistencies and areas where the translation quality might vary.

The comparison process helps pinpoint areas where the target language text could be clearer, more concise, or better reflect the original meaning. This way, you get translated content that is easy to understand, thus avoiding ambiguity.

Limitations of back translation

Adding another translation phase to a project can double the workload, extend the overall project timeline, and potentially increasing cost. The process also requires finding two qualified translators, one for the initial translation and another for the reverse translation, which can be an additional challenge.

If your project has a tight budget or a short deadline, re-translating might not be feasible. Furthermore, for some projects, it might not even be necessary. For general blog posts, for example, absolute accuracy is less crucial, while content that relies heavily on creativity or marketing jargon might not translate well literally.

To conclude

If you’re trying to achieve high-quality translations, consider incorporating back translation into your workflow. Sure, it has its limitations such as being resource-intensive, and its effectiveness largely depends on the skills of the translators involved. However, this quality assurance process can reveal discrepancies and potential errors that might otherwise go unnoticed. Overall, it could prove particularly useful in fields requiring high precision such as legal, medical, and technical documentation.

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