What is back translation?
To jog your memory, back translation is when a translated text is re-translated back into the source language.
An example could be that you’ve translated your English marketing survey into Japanese and then ask a new translator with no knowledge of the source text to translate it from Japanese back into English in a slightly more literal way than normal. If the back translator takes liberties or glosses over any rough patches, the back translation will be useless: whereas translators work through spelling errors, inconsistencies, or terminology errors, back translators must reproduce and flag such errors. Since the texts will not be facsimiles of each other, the last step in the process is called reconciliation, where the back translator (or yet a third, uninvolved party with high language proficiency in both languages) reconciles the texts against each other to determine what, if anything, should be changed.
Reasons for back translation
Some types of translation projects are legally or ethically required to be back translated. Ethics committees and institutional review boards for clinical trials often require back translation to protect the rights and safety of trial participants. In other cases where it isn’t required, any time when high-value or high-stakes content is being translated is a good time to employ back translation. There are many cringe-worthy anecdotes of companies spending millions on ad and marketing campaigns only to find that their message was misinterpreted and fell flat or worse, offended their customers. Back translation is an additional line of defense to guard against such debacles.
A relatively small investment in a properly executed back translation up front could spare you major headaches down the road. In these cases, back translation really isn’t a step you can afford to skip. Here are two unbeatable benefits of adding back translation to your project.
The obvious: catch any lingering errors
To err is human, and translators are only human. It is possible for translators to miss things—and I don’t just mean typos. Translators can misinterpret cultural differences, inadvertently use regionalisms, forget to use a company-specific glossary, choose a word with an unintended double meaning, or a host of other issues. Back translation increases the likelihood that these errors are found and corrected before your translation is read by its target audience.
The less obvious: improve your source text
A little-known benefit of back translation: it is an amazing way to catch inconsistencies, confusing sentences, or errors of the source text. A little extra perspective can be invaluable when it comes to high-stakes documentation. Translators read documents differently than your audience will. They read in a way that rivals the focus of the content author: the reading is deeper, more critical, and more analytical. Seeing how someone who is reading that closely interprets your words can help you to find a better, clearer way to say what may seem obvious to you but is less so to someone else. The reconciliation step becomes an opportunity to hone and refine your message.
It’s clear why some buyers hesitate to have their materials back translated when it is not required: it is time-consuming and costly. However, back translation can help you avoid famous translation blunders that have gone viral on social media in recent years. Moreover, it can provide a unique opportunity to rethink and rework your content after seeing it through someone else’s eyes. If you’re dealing with content where a mistranslation could cost you dearly, back translation is an opportunity that shouldn’t be passed up.
To read more of Ben’s posts, visit his blog, Ben Translates, where he writes about translation, language, and freelancing. You can learn more about Ben and his translation services on his website and you can connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn, and even Instagram.