Back translation: the pros and cons

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Back translation describes a process whereby a text translated into a target language is translated back into the original source language for checking purposes.

The back translation process

The aim of a back translation is to find out if the translation is grammatically correct, the meaning clear, the correct message conveyed, with no omissions or additions. In principle, a back translation will allow a non-native speaker of the target language to check that the translation correctly conveys the meaning of the source text.

STEP 1. The back translation is performed by an independent translator with no access to the original source text, but who is made aware that they are working on a back translation.

STEP 2. Once the back translation task has been completed, a reviewer compares both versions and marks up all discrepancies, places where the meaning may be unclear or ambiguous, and any potential issue.

STEP 3. Because the back translation is never be 100% exactly the same as the original source text and due to the nuances in languages, in most cases the reviewer will need to clarify with the translators. However, it is never clear whether the problems stem from the original translation or from the back translation. The reviewer usually sends his report first to the original translator, who may or may not agree to amend his translation. If the original translator insists that he is correct, the back translator is consulted, until eventually all issues have been sorted out and the final text satisfies all. This is sometimes called reconciliation.

STEP 4. The final approved translation is sent to the client, along with the annotated/commented back translations, outlining all discrepancies and how they have been addressed.

The pros and cons of back translations

The process of back translating is very common amongst pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies, clinical research organisations and the likes.

For those organisations and institutions, having a back translation to verify content is a legal and regulatory requirement. Most IRBs (Institutional Review Boards) and Ethics committees require that certificates of accuracy and back-translations are submitted with all translated materials. In such high risk situations, back translations are well worth the investment, adding an extra quality assurance step to the translation process. Language Professionals regularly produces back translations for client in the medical and pharmaceutical fields.

On the other hand, back translation is a highly time-consuming and expensive process.

Because the main aim of back-translation is to ensure accuracy, it gives no real indication of the actual quality of the original translation. In fact, a bad or literal translation will often produce an excellent back translation!

  • Do not expect the same text as the original. A back translation will never be 100% the same. In fact, it will often sound very literal and unnatural. This is because the back translator aims at reflecting the translation as closely as possible and is aware that the text is not for publication but for checking purposes. A back translation will not reflect the quality of the translation with regards to style or register. It will not necessarily flag up purely linguistic issues such as poor style, spelling and grammatical errors or incorrect technical terminology.
  • The reviewer must be an experienced, trained linguist, sensitive to language nuances, and usually not the client. Some clients want to do the review themselves, and will ask the translators to endlessly update their translations until the back-translation is almost exactly the same as the original source text, but that is missing the point.
  • Back-translations often wrongly identify discrepancies, usually caused by differences between languages, causing false unnecessary concerns. The majority of alleged discrepancies are often linguistic issues where the back translation does not match the original, but where the original translation did conveying the source text’s meaning in an appropriate manner. For example:
    • Apparent discrepancies in using singular or plural (there are no dedicated plural forms as such in e.g. Vietnamese or Chinese)
    • Apparent discrepancies in using tenses (again, tenses are often not marked in other languages the way they are in English)
    • Apparent discrepancies in using “and”/”or”
    • Addition of some words to make the back translation flow better, but that do not exist in the original translation or the original source text, such as “any”, “some”, etc…

Many such apparent linguistic discrepancies are often incomprehensible and alarming to clients, as they signal non-conformity in translation when in fact this is not the case.

  • Where issues are identified, it is difficult to assess whether they stem from the original translation or the back translation, so liaising with both translators is usually required, which takes time and diplomacy.
  • For this reason, it’s better to use the same provider for translation and back translation. While it would seem that using two independent agencies would add integrity to the process, it will be much harder to reconcile the translation, as communication with BOTH translators through the reviewer will not be possible.
  • Ample time should be allowed for the resolution of any deviations highlighted by the back translation, particularly if the document is lengthy. This does not make back translations ideal when deadlines are tight.
  • Finally, some translators will simply refuse to do back translations, as they find the process too time consuming and stressful.

Given the amount of time, cost (back translation plus reviewing time), and also potential for incorrectly identifying issues of back translations, other forms of checking are usually preferred to back translation, unless in the specific context of medical, legal or technical translations.

For example, NSW Multicultural Health does not recommend back translation, but favours independent checking instead. Their rationale is explained here:

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