What is Back Translation?

Although we have the utmost confidence in our linguists, who are carefully evaluated for their expertise in specific subject domains, we are occasionally asked to include an additional validation step called a “back translation” in our workflow. A back translation can be defined as the translation of a target document back to the original source language. The back translation should be performed by a separate linguist with no knowledge of the original source content.

diagram of the back translation process

The Back Translation Process

When is it Important?

Back translations are specifically important when working with highly sensitive or high risk information. A back translation may also be legally required. For example, Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and ethics committees often require a back translation and certificate of accuracy for the translation of pharmaceutical marketing or clinical trials materials. The back translation will help to identify any potential ambiguities or sensitive details that may have been overlooked or misunderstood in the translation. It also assures that any cross-cultural issues are addressed and ironed out before publication of the translated text. This will confirm that the text is conceptually and culturally appropriate for the target audience.

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What should you expect from a back translation?

A back translation will never be an exact replica of the original source text. Despite striving for objectivity, translation is often a subjective matter. There is no mathematical formula to any language, and one translator’s word choice may not exactly match the preference of another. We instruct our linguists to perform a back translation as literally and directly as possible in order to give the most precise dictionary meaning of the translation and to avoid introducing any personal style choices.

How does the reconciliation process work?

After the back translation is completed, the next step is to compare the back translation to the source to determine whether or not there are any differences that matter between the two, and to reconcile those differences either by making changes to the translation or by confirming that the original translation does convey the proper message. We compare the back translation to the source text first to see whether we spot any questionable areas and flag any concepts that have been misunderstood or language that leaves room for ambiguity and attempt to reconcile any obvious problem areas.

Next the back translation with our notes, if any, will be passed on to the client’s editorial team for review. The client also compares the back translation to the original source text and flags any problem areas they see. Finally, any problems identified will be entered in a spreadsheet and passed on to the original translator who will review the issues report, address any ambiguities or seeming inconsistencies, and provide feedback on the spreadsheet, defending her translation or offering an alternative. This reconciliation report is passed back to the client, who may accept or reject any alternative. The objective is to work with the client to identify language that best expresses the content in the client’s original source text. Not all differences between the source text and the back translation are significant.

Back translations are not a guarantee of accuracy, but they are a helpful way to identify any potential bumps in the road. For reviewing style or branding, a back translation is not ideal. In these cases, you may want to send the translation to your in-country reviewer or local distributor in this case.

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