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What is Back Translation?

Updated: Apr 21



Before we talk about back translation, we need to first talk about forward translation.


Forward translation is basically what people generally think of as translation. For example, if you are translating from English to Simplified Chinese, the delivered document for the forward translation step is in Simplified Chinese.


Source > Target

Elite > 精英


The back translation step takes place after or together with the forward translation step.


Back Translation Source > Target

精英 > elite



The Two Types of Back Translation


There are two main ways of using back translation.


One is engaging a second translator and sending the translation (e.g. translated text in Simplified Chinese) produced by the forward translator to them. The back translator will translate the translated document back into English or whatever language the source text came in. The client will then be able to see if any important information is omitted or misconstrued and will bring up their questions regarding these issues with the translators. This may take between one to a few rounds of discussion.


Another way is for the translator who is working on the forward translation to add a back translation beside whatever they translated.


Source: Hey, that pink looks really cute on you!

Transcreation: 哇 你穿粉红色的衣服真好看!

Back Translation of the transcreated text: Wow, you really look good wearing pink clothing!


From what you may be able to tell from the above, you will not be getting the exact same text in the source language back when you request for a back translation. Because back translations are not meant to be used in any public-facing ways. They are meant for internal review and therefore may not always be grammatically correct or have the correct sentence structure.


In a way, back translation offers translation clients peace of mind in being able to check if the translation was done accurately. It allows them to ask questions and clear their doubts. It gives them some measure of control over the accuracy of the translated content.


Sometimes, there is good reason for content to be translated a particular way in the target language. Back translation gives both translator and client the opportunity to address the differences and issues before the translation is made public or sent to the end-client or partners.


Not all industries are in the habit of requesting for back translation in their translated materials. The industries that tend to utilise back translation are advertising, healthcare and legal.



Transcreation in Advertising


In advertising, transcreation is more common than translation. Transcreation, also sometimes referred to as creative translation, is the translation of more than just words – you’re translating the mood, personality, attitude and the underlying meaning and intention of the words.


This means that there are many different ways of translating the same source text. The transcreator may be asked to add a back translation for all translated options so that the marketing team can review and decide if the translated content fits in with their overall brand strategy.



Healthcare Translation


There is wide adoption of back translation in healthcare translation as the need for accuracy is very high.


Source: Do you have problems bending over to pick something up from the floor? Yes/No

Translation: 您从地上捡起东西,是否感到困难?是/否

Back Translation: You pick up something from the floor, do you feel it’s difficult? Yes/No



Translation of Contracts in the Legal Field


In the legal field, back translation is particularly useful when it comes to the translation of contracts. The meaning of words can be misinterpreted even within the same language.


Even though this is an extra step to take, it benefits business owners or legal consultants of companies planning to sign contracts with foreign entities to get a back translation done on the translated contract, just to be sure that critical terms and clauses are not compromised.


Usually, it is common practice for such legal contracts to include a clause at the very end to indicate the version that shall prevail (for example, English) in the event of discrepancy between the two different language versions of a contract. This is a safety net.


With back translation, it is possible for issues to be flagged up and trashed out before the signing of contract so that one doesn’t have to use this safety net.



 

Back Translation may seem like a bothersome step to take for some, an unnecessary lengthening of time spent, but those who’d had to deal with problematic issues down the road appreciate the extra layer of checks and discussions.


This doesn’t mean that all projects must include a back translation step. A Translation+Proofreading combination is generally good enough in many cases. The above scenarios are by no means the only situations where back translation is required; they are just simply more common.



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