All You Ever Wanted (and Needed) to Know on Back-Translation, with Definitions, Methods, and Examples
Have you ever watched puzzled, uncomfortable, almost-on-the-verge-of-a-doubt patients when trying to fill out an informed consent that a smiling desk nurse has nicely handed out? You know, just wondering why their understanding now seems such a challenge, leaving them perspiring, yet A/C seated, confused under the now inquisitive look of – let’s call her – Amélie, the French nurse.
They knew hospital admission was to be a journey, but not this type. So why on earth, they think, are the questions on this form so difficult? Well, it’s probably a case of translated medical documents with insufficient quality control, which could have been avoided by applying a back-translation process.
This article serves as your guide, offering all you need to know to understand the power of this method. And most importantly it allows you to unleash the might and value of your translations then assorted with optimal linguistic localisation. Ready to make the most of a journey?
What is back-translation? (a tool that has your back)
In the world of translation, ensuring accuracy and maintaining linguistic equivalence is paramount. That’s where back-translation, or reverse translation, comes into play: A 4-step translation process (see below) where a translated text is then translated back into its original language. For example, from English to French, and back again, ending up with three versions of the text/content.
Back-translation is a powerful tool that helps in quality control and ensures that the original meaning is preserved across languages. You know – languages having each other’s back (pun definitely intended).
When to use back-translation (mind your back)
There are two main types of content that can benefit from back-translation:
Highly regulated content, such as:
- pharmaceutical texts
- forms and surveys
- medical and scientific reports
- legal texts
- operating instruction manuals
- other documents containing high risk or sensitive information
Creative content, such as:
- marketing slogans and collateral
- food product labelling in culinary translation
- export packaging
- financial reports
Benefits of using back-translation
Well well well, you might say. Anything else? And more importantly, why use it? Let’s look at some use cases to understand the benefits of back- or reverse translation.
Medical and pharmaceutical translation
In this field, back-translation is used for:
- protocols, pharmaceutical guidelines,
- clinical research and trials,
- medical instruments and devices.
In cases such as these, the main benefits include:
|👉 Ensuring accuracy||Rendering the translated content back into the source language is useful to validate its accuracy. Any discrepancies or deviations are identified and corrected, ensuring the content’s fidelity.|
|👉 Mitigating risk||Medical errors can have severe consequences, ranging from health liabilities to medical disputes. Back-translation minimises the risk of harm and potential litigation by providing an additional layer of validation.|
|👉 Navigating cultural nuances||Legal and regulatory frameworks can vary significantly across different countries and cultures. Back-translation takes into account not only the linguistic translation but also the cultural context, ensuring that concepts are accurately conveyed and understood in the target language and culture by users.|
|👉 Complying with regulations||The medical field is subject to strict regulations, so back-translation ensures that translated content aligns with regulatory standards in the target region, ensuring adherence to local laws and norms..|
Legal and regulatory content
In this field, back-translation is used for:
- taxation and customs documents,
In such cases as these, reverse translation acts as a vital instrument to guarantee stakeholders, clients, consumers and individuals’ best interests, and documentation accuracy (mind your back—part 2):
|👉 Preserving legal intent||Legal documents are carefully crafted to reflect the intentions of the parties involved. Back-translation guarantees that these intentions are preserved through translation, maintaining the original legal and contractual agreements without alteration.|
|👉 Building global accessibility||The content needs to be accessible and intelligible in various languages. Back- translation enables seamless communication between teams, bodies, stakeholders. or individuals across different linguistic backgrounds.|
|👉 Building trust and transparency||For an international market, ensuring that the content is accurately translated and understood is crucial for fostering trust among all parties involved.|
|👉 Complying with regulations||In sectors governed by stringent regulations, back-translation aligns translated materials with the regulatory norms of the target region.|
Marketing and advertising copy
Now, marketing translation is probably the most extensive field where back-translation will elevate your translations to new heights. Among the very (very) long list of typical marketing contents requiring back translation, we find:
- branding materials
- packaging and labels
- product descriptions
The need to artfully convey a consistent, compelling and impactful message across different language markets, catering to the linguistic and cultural nuances of diverse audiences is the main reason why you need back-translation in marketing.
|👉 Preserving brand voice||Just as your brand has a distinct personality, your translated materials should resonate with the same authenticity and character. Recognition remains intact.|
|👉 Maintaining cultural sensitivity:||Different cultures perceive messages in distinct ways. Back-translation prevents unintended faux pas or mix-ups that could harm your brand’s reputation and fail the target market..|
|👉 Adapting message impact||Using wordplay, idioms, or cultural references that don’t have direct equivalents in other languages, preserving the essence of creative elements for keeping impact.|
|👉 Consistent information||Ensuring that information, such as ingredient lists, nutritional facts, and warnings, remains consistent in meaning and presentation.|
|👉 Legibility and design||Ensuring that translated text suitably fits within the design, maintaining the visual appeal of the packaging.|
Back translation definitely spares perspiring.
But should you always choose back-translation? (when to step back)
Sometimes, you need to avoid back-translation when it proves less adapted or impossible.
When concepts don’t match
Let’s consider the expression “foster children” in this context: it refers to children in the U.S.-specific government-sponsored, foster-care programme. In other words, it doesn’t have general meaning but a restricted one that is implicit to English-language readers in the U.S.
The Chinese translation mentioned in the research paper ignored the implicit in the source and kept the concept of “children under care/temporary at a relative or friend’s”, as the source concept in the expression “foster children” was totally foreign. So when the original translation was tested with Chinese speakers in the U.S., most of them did not understand the concept in the original translation.
When stylistic preferences come in the way
For instance, repetitions. Because it reads more natural to avoid repetitions, a translator working into French, for example, might avoid repetitive terms. A back-translation might flag this as an error, when it’s actually a quality enhancer.
|EN (source)||ES (translation)||EN (back translation)|
|(…) getting HIV and when HIV can be detected (…)||(…) de contracter le VIH et le moment où le virus peut être détecté (…)||(…) of contracting HIV and the time the virus can be detected (…)|
With brand names and other transcreated content
In some instances, capturing the original intent with the possible cultural reference(s) requires another tool: transcreation. It’s the case of brand names and slogans. When text is transcreated, direct equivalence is lost, and back-translation loses relevance as a tool to ensure accuracy (transcreation doesn’t strive for accuracy).
When resources are tight
There are occasions when back-translation isn’t a full necessity.
Adding back-translation to your localisation process means a second or third translator in the loop. This is an additional cost. So better use it for highly regulated field contents or when the price for an inaccurate translation would prove much higher.
Sometimes, parts of the content may need a back-translation, not the whole. Opt for what’s best or ask your trusted translation provider for advice.
What is reconciliation?
Reconciliation is a step that comes after back-translation, and which consists in making adjustments as needed to optimise your final translation. The language service provider (LSP) or translator compares the original source with the back translation to search for discrepancies where the meaning seems confusing or slightly different, and to check that nothing was lost in the translation.
The reconciliation workflow looks something like this:
1. The back-translation is delivered.
2. A “reconciliation report” is generated. It contains all the issues found during the comparison step.
3. The discrepancies get solved under the project manager’s supervision. During this stage, consulting the original translator(s) is necessary to ensure that all discrepancies have been treated and clarified, and that accuracy improves.
Steps in the back-translation process
A successful back-translation process requires some planning and thought. Here are the main steps:
First, a translator or an LSP translates the text from source language to target (for instance, from English into French), following terminology and style guidelines.
The translated text is then given to a second translator working from the target language (French) to the source language (English). This translator proceeds to perform a literal – very precise – translation of this content back to the original language. (See below for best practice instructions.)
Reconciliation and proofreading
The back-translation is then given to a third expert – sometimes the client themselves, if they have the required expertise – who reconciles it with the source text for accuracy, raising any discrepancies or questions to the translator who produced the initial translation. This translator can then make the necessary adjustments.
The reconciled version is then proofread one final time to ensure that all typos, spelling errors and other imperfections have been removed.
Review, approval, and finalisation
When the proofreading is complete, the final version of the translation is sent to a designated reviewer. Once approved, this content can be published or used in-house.
Example of back-translation
Let’s look at the latest McDonald’s slogan in different languages.
Original copy in English: I’m lovin’it
|Polish||Mam smaka na Maka||I have a taste for Mac|
|Dutch||Voor iedereen”||For all|
|Indonesian||Ada McD, Ada Kita||There’s McDonald’s, there’s Us|
|Georgian||რესტორანი მთელი ოჯახისთვის||Restaurant for the whole family|
|French||Venez comme vous êtes||Come as you are|
|German||Ich liebe es||I love it|
|Brazilian Portuguese||Amo Muito Tudo Isso||I like all that so much|
|Turkish||İşte Bunu Seviyorum||That’s what I like|
|Ukranian||Я це люблю||I love it|
|Spanish||Me encanta||I love it|
Back-translation best practices
Here are some tips for successful reverse translation:
- Maintain good communication: Back-translation requires good communication between all stakeholders involved in the process – translators, LSPs, and clients – to ensure that everyone understands the context of the project.
- Keep a record of changes: Every time an adjustment or amendment is made, make sure the changes are tracked in a way that all involved parties can view and understand.
- Update your terminology database and translation memory: For each project, it’s important to update your terminology database and translation memory (if applicable). This will help ensure consistent translations in the future.
- Use different linguists for the initial translation and back-translation: To eliminate bias and potential errors, use two different linguists for the initial translation and back-translation. This will ensure that each task is done objectively.
- Opt for native speakers: For effective back-translation results, it’s important to use native speakers of both the source and target language. Native speakers have a better understanding of nuances in the language that non– native speakers may not pick up on.
- Don’t show the back-translator the original text: This will help the translator avoid being unconsciously influenced by what is already written.
Back-translation is harmony
An effective back-translation goes well beyond finding errors and discrepancies. It brings to life the essence of your message: how it reads in the target language, how it will be perceived by the audience, and how best you can communicate with it.
Back-translation is a powerful tool that can help make sure your message is accurately translated while keeping its original tone intact. Remember: if in doubt, reach out to a professional language service provider (hiya!) for advice on how best to apply back-translation to your workflows.
Author: Sandrine Grenier
Sandrine Grenier is a B2B freelance English-to-French translator and language trainer, with a passion for words and communication, and a solid university background in Humanities and Languages. She’s the author of the Cned’s précis for the new LLCE specialty curriculum she taught. With her long first career as a teacher, English-fluent, she understands the others, having set up international programmes with the U.S.A, Japan, Malaysia, and India. Today, as a qualified translator, she helps companies, institutions and individuals to deliver the right message with the right words to the right audience. You can connect with her at contact[at]sgtraductions-services.fr.