diagram of the back translation process

The Back Translation Process

The back translation and reconciliation process that I described in my post from last week is not an exact science. The following guidelines for client review of back translation can help to ensure a speedy and efficient back translation and reconciliation process.

  • Leave linguistic details up to the translation team. Remember that word order and grammatical conventions may not be exactly the same in the target language. Suggesting that words be rearranged in the translation to exactly match the target (for example, a preference for passive voice instead of active voice) may lower the quality of the translation or be grammatically incorrect in the target language.
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  • Don’t panic if the back translation doesn’t exactly match the source. If you find something that appears to be incorrect or inexact in the back translation, wait for the translation team to review your comments and provide you with feedback before demanding a revision. It does not mean that the translation is incorrect, only that it should be reviewed.
    • A word or phrase in the translation may have multiple meanings. For example, in a recent translation into Spanish, a medical translator used the term “girar” to indicate a “swinging” motion. The back translator translated this word as “twist.” “Girar” can translate as “twist,” “swing,” or “turn,” and thus, “girar” is, in fact, an appropriate translation. In this case, the translation was flagged as a potential error but defended by the translator and retained in the translation.
    • As the back translator is also human, she could have introduced an error in the back translation itself. We all make mistakes sometimes.
    • The final possibility is that the original translation did not stay true to your message in some respect and must be revised. That’s what we’re here for!
  • Don’t contract with a separate company or translator to do a back translation. You should use the same language partner for your back translation that you used for your original translation. (The exception is when the original translation was done by an individual translator. You do not want the same person doing both the forward and back translations.) All of our resources are qualified linguists, and we guarantee that the back translation will be performed by a second professional team that has no knowledge of the original source text. We will assure that any “false positives” (errors in the back translation itself) are minimized, ensuring a quick and cost-effective reconciliation process. Furthermore, a language service provider cannot provide a certificate of accuracy for translations they did not perform. If the back translation must be submitted along with the certificate of accuracy, it is best to hire only one provider.
  • Identify the differences that matter. Sentence structure and word choice are not important if the meaning of the content is the same. Focus on the gist and underlying meaning. Don’t try to force changes in the translation so that the back translation will be a word-for-word equivalent of the source.
    • Example of a difference that matters (from a health insurance claim):
Original English source text inflammation
English to Arabic translation إلتهاب
Arabic to English back translation infection

From a medical standpoint, inflammation and infection are entirely different concepts and such a discrepancy may cause confusion on a health insurance claim. This is a case where the translator should revise the translation, providing more detail and clarity.

    • Example of a difference that doesn’t matter (from an employee newsletter):
Original English source text waste
English to German translation Abfall
German to English back translation trash

In this case, “waste” and “trash” are synonyms. The distinction between the two terms is not critical in terms of an employee newsletter, and thus, this is not a case where a revision is crucial to maintaining the meaning of the source text.

  • The source documents may be unclear. Always provide your translation partner with an edited, finalized document for translation. Even when you think your document is 100% ready for translation, however, the back translation may reveal an ambiguity in the original source text, which may itself require revision. For example:
Original English source text The approved documents and contracts were submitted to the lawyer.
English to Spanish translation Los documentos aprobados y los contratos se presentaron al abogado.
Spanish to English back translation The approved documents and the contracts were submitted to the lawyer.

Were both the legal documents AND the contracts approved? Or the legal documents only? Looking at the English source, it is not clear. This is a case where a source revision may be necessary.

Back translation can be a valuable validation check when accuracy of documents is critically important or when it is a legal requirement. Following the above suggestions will help to maintain a smooth and effective back translation process.

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