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What are back translations really for?

Whenever we’re asked to do a back translation, we instinctively recoil and kindly refuse.
It may not seem like a logical business choice, but to me, back translations are first and foremost a way end clients have to control your work that is far more intrusive than making sure quality is up to scratch. It’s as if they were saying: I don’t really know your mother tongue and since I can never be sure whether you’re good or not, I’ve decided to bring it all back to my language so that I can judge for myself.

And this really irks me.

But of course, this is not all there is to it.
I’m sure at the root of it there’s a lack of communication between the middle entity, that is the company between ourselves, the LSP, and the end clients, and the end client themselves. Very often the middle company does not have any Italian linguists and they have to find ways to reassure a client that they cannot reassure by other, more persuasive means. Hence the back translation.

But is it really effective?
We all know that when translating “you lose some, you gain some”, but what happens when your reverse the combination? I’m sure the end client thinks that if all that was there to begin with is not there in the back translation, then… A-ha!, there’s your mistranslation! But it does not really work quite this way and when you end up having to justify why “more” can and should be translated as “many” if there’s no comparison to follow (i.e. more than… something), well… when this happens frustration kicks in and you end up having to justify your own language to people who don’t speak it nor understand it.

9 comments to What are back translations really for?

  • Thanks for blogging about this. It’s been something I’ve thought about over the past week, after I was asked to do a back translation of a creative text for a client which seemed to throw up more linguistic issues than I think my client was prepared for. The brief from their client was not particularly clear, which matches the lack of communication situation you mention, and also stems on their part from a lack of understanding about what is involved in translating advertising copy.

    From my point of view as the back translator, it was easier, but for my client (the middleman) and the original translator, it seemed like a lot of stress that didn’t particularly achieve anything. As you say, effective client communication and reassurance would have achieved more in the long run.

    I’m hoping to ‘see the light’ soon though!


    • I don’t know that the conditions are any better for us to see the light, quite the opposite. I see quite a few “middle people” in awe of the end clients, afraid to lose them, so much so that they fail to see that a stronger stance on their part would benefit them rather than hurt them. Back translations, in the broadest sense, are part of this unbalanced interaction. At least till I see something different.

  • Yup, blogged about this back in 2007. Back translation is pseudo quality control.

  • Back translation is a flawed concept. It is often used in clinical trials documentation and I had quite a lot of contact with it in three roles: as a translator, as a back translator, and as reviewer.

    It is obvious truth, that good translation rarely will be word-to-word with the original. However, when you are a reviewer in a scenario with back translation, you don’t rate the quality of translation, rather the likeness to the source text.
    I’ve learned that when my translation is to be translated back, I have to translate the source text quite differently, trying to “reverse engineer” the back translation of my text to source language and choosing not the best words, but the words that will be most likely translated back the same as source. The result is a mediocre quality translation, which still doesn’t necessarily convey the same meaning as source text, which would be the point of the exercise.

    If someone wants to get a good quality translation which conveys the original meaning as close as possible, he/she simply should trust reviewers (more than one), if they say it is.

    • Totally agree, and I think it’s sad that one should push and prod one’s translation until it fits this very shallow end. Naturally, the client’s always right, a we all know, but trust is of the essence and it seems to me it is valued less and less.

  • I don’t know that the conditions are any better for us to see the light, quite the opposite. I see quite a few “middle people” in awe of the end clients, afraid to lose them, so much so that they fail to see that a stronger stance on their part would benefit them rather than hurt them. Back translations, in the broadest sense, are part of this unbalanced interaction. At least till I see something different.

  • I entirely agree with you Sharron, as my experience has invariably been the one you describe.

  • Simon

    I’m coming to this conversation three years late, so apologies for that. I wanted to point out that back-translations are actually very useful when they are properly implemented (almost always for use in medical and pharmaceutical trials). An effective BT/QA procedure something like this:

    (1) native speaker of target language produces translation,
    (2) the translation is run past patients who might be potential candidates for the trial and anything unclear flagged and reworked,
    (3) the updated translation is handed off to a native speaker of the original language, who back-translates the file. A back-translation is NOT a literal translation but an extremely close translation that tries to reflect nuances/choices that the first translator made, and space is usually made for linguistic feedback/comments on those choices. When any obvious questions arise, this is the point to ask the translator or back-translator about them and make changes.
    (4) Harmonization is the last step. And in many ways, this is the most critical step: all of the different target-language versions have to be harmonized. This is often done with native speakers of the target languages sitting together around a table reading oral back-translations into English of the translation. Each person present listens to the others and tries to flag spots in their own or others’ translations where the intent of the English source material has not been retained. This is critically important because the data collected in multiple countries from such materials has to be comparable; if the Portuguese version goes too far off on a limb, and the Dutch version goes too far on a different limb, then the data collected will be ruined because the Portuguese and Dutch versions aren’t asking the same question, for data collection purposes. The harmonizers recommend changes that the original translator implements and retests clinically, and the the translation is finalized.

    Back-translation is not a rub-your-nose-in-doo-doo kind of thing; it’s an expensive process designed to make sure that medical and pharmaceutical data is accurate and comparable cross-culturally. When done poorly, back-translations result in bad data and confusing or questionable medical advice. When done well, they are an essential part of collecting cross-culturally relevant, usable data.

    Many back-translation customers do not appreciate the purpose and importance of proper back-translations; those customers should be avoided at all costs. Customers who do understand will work with the LSP and translators and support them through the whole process.

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