What is Back Translation, and Why Is It Important?

Adding Redundancy to a Translated Document

Blind Back TranslationWhat is back translation? This is something you might be wondering if you haven’t come across the term before. Boiled down to its core, a succinct back translation definition is when a translation team takes a translation document that has already been translated into a target language, and then independently (using a different translator or team) translates it back into the original source language. Simple, right? But why ask for a back translation in the first place?

Why Ask for a Back Translation?

Now that we’ve answered the question what is back translation, and given you a brief back translation definition, let’s look at why a translations service, or client, might want to perform this extra proofing step.

Imagine you’re working with a Spanish translation agency on an important translation document for an informed consent form (ICF) for some sensitive medical or pharmaceutical trial taking place in a Spanish-speaking country or region. Any error, no matter how small (vocabulary, syntax, cultural misunderstandings) could lead to big legal problems down the line. Back translation is an extra level of proofing “insurance,” often looking at subjective aspects of a translation as well as technical, for those special types of documents an entire commercial endeavor may hinge upon.

A good analogy is found in the accounting field where the method double entry bookkeeping guides accountants into redundant record keeping  always ensuring that Assets = Liabilities + Equity.

How Does Back Translation Work?

The back translation process offers individuals unfamiliar with the translated to language a feasible way for comparing a translated text with the original document, which then lets them work through any linguistic uncertainties, perplexities or mistakes that may have arisen during the translation process.

This “reverse translation” procedure, while costly, offers clients an independent proof of a vital document that not only deals with the technical aspects of a given translation, but also delves into nuanced linguistic areas.

In our Spanish translation agency translation document example from before, an independently translated document (the informed consent form) — translated as literally as possible back into the source text — can identify small mistakes, nuanced language issues (words with unclear or double meanings, vocabulary used by different segments of society, unintended meaning coming from differences in syntax between regional dialects, etc.), or any other problems that can be associated with translations from one language into another, without the need of understanding a second language. Once the comparisons have been made, any lingering translation issues can be corrected.

When Should a Back Translation Be Requested?

When you ask for a back translation, in essence, you’re asking for a completely new translation — only it happens to be back into the source language. This means the associated translation costs apply (basically, you’ll be paying for two translations for one document). Back translations should only be applied to very special cases, generally in the legal, scientific or medical fields, and even then, only for documents that are considered high value or carry extra risk.

What is Blind Back Translation

A blind back translation typically refers to the fact that the person that is translating the translated document back to its original source language, has no access to the original source, therefore is blind to the original. This ensures that a completely objective back translation takes place. Translation memories, glossaries and other assets used in the translation of the original, should not be shared in the back translation process!

As a general rule, it’s best if you work with a quality transition agency that already has a rigorous translation proofing process rooted into the structure of how it operates, and how it deals with every translation document it comes across, particularly when certified translations are needed. This will not only minimize the rework needed to the translated document that you are seeking to be perfect, but it will also give you the peace of mind that all of your translations are accurate. But of course, if you want to go the extra mile for truly sensitive materials, back translation is available, offering additional translation security when it’s needed most.


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