Back Translation 101: What is it and Why Use it?

Learn about the process of back translation and the advantages of using back translation to improve translation accuracy and localization.

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Veronica Pastuch

27. April 2022


What is Back Translation?

The term "back translation," also known as "reverse translation," is the process of translating a previously translated text back to its source language. Back translation is used to check the overall quality of a once completed translation to spot potential differences in the meaning between the source and target text.

Although the back translation process aims to produce an accurate translation, it differs from an ordinary translation process. The starting point is the translation itself instead of a source text. Furthermore, this operation generally involves a second translator who has not contributed to the translation process of a given document.

The objective of back translation is to check for differences between the initial translation and back translation in terms of the meaning and to find only differences such as terms of concept, function, and effect. Just because the two versions of content are identical, it doesn't necessarily mean that the initial translation was accurate. What's important is having an efficient process when using back translation with a proxy solution.

Back translation can be considered a three-step translation quality control method.

First, the text translation during the back translation process is completed back to the original language. In most cases, the back translator doesn't see the source text so that they can focus on assessing the context instead of structure and word preferences.

Next, a comparison of that new translation with the original text occurs. 

Finally, the reconciliation process of the back translation is documented, showing what has been changed and why. The goal of reconciliation is to decide on an optimum final translation that correctly conveys the original document's meaning.

Certain kinds of translation do not work with back translation. For example, Google Translate can't accurately perform back translation, nor can Maschinenübersetzung or Computer-Assisted Translation (CAT). Back translation must be done by a human translator because the translation must include localization elements to compare the translations accurately.

Why Use Back Translation At All?

The idea of back translation seems a bit odd – why translate text once just to translate it back to the original language?

Back translation involves the transfer of written text from the source language to its equivalent in the target language. It considers the users and readers of the translated document, the nuances of the language, and the culture of the country of the target language. It is a way to ensure the highest quality of all translated materials used. Back translation is mainly used for content that contains high-risk or sensitive materials. Here are some specific reasons:

Quality Assurance: In fields such as healthcare, clients are strongly advised to perform back translation as an additional step in their usual Quality Assurance process for high-risk documentation such as texts relating to medications, clinical trials, patient wellbeing, and medical devices. Back translation ensures the highest level of accuracy and safety.

Accuracy of Localization: In the medical field, back translation can be used to determine the accurate translation of lab notes, ingredients, scientific data, and packaging. It is also beneficial for global market research companies to ensure that the results are valid for the researched target markets.

Best for Technical Translations: Back translation is often used in technical translations to comply with regulatory or legal requirements. For example, for pharmaceutical and medical translations, ethics committees and review boards would require certificates of accuracy and back translations to be submitted along with translated documents for clinical trials. This is to protect materials that will be made available to patients and protect consumers and patients from erroneous information from life-changing products that directly affect people's lives around the world. Regulatory review processes and review boards also require back translations to confirm promotional and advertising claims.

For the legal industry, back translation is effective for multilingual contracts, where issues can occur due to low-quality translation and miscommunication. The translation of legal documents is tricky and requires clarity. Back translation ensures text has been accurately translated into the target language. In addition, this method can pinpoint ambivalent or confusing terminology.


Limitations of the Back Translation Method

Content for back translation includes high-level documents that readers in another language need to understand, whether for legal or medical reasons or when understanding cross-cultural research. There are limitations to using back translation, however.

The back translation process is extensive and involves an incredibly close translation revision, which means it can become an expensive process. Back translations are much more time-consuming than the standard translation process, or utilizing neural machine translation. This is because the back translation process has to account for time needed to complete two independent translations and additional time for the reviewer, original translator, and back translator to evaluate and reconcile any discrepancies identified by the reviewer. If your translation project is under a tight deadline, back translation may not be feasible.

Pair Back Translation With Expert Linguists for Ideal Results

With back translation, translated text often stays very close to the original text. Therefore, back translation accounts more for quality control and ensures the translated text conveys what the original content is saying in a localization context. A successful back translation project is well-planned, using several professionals. A localization company, such as MotionPoint, can help you consider if back translation is appropriate for your project considering time, resources, and budget and plan and implement a back translation process that suits your needs.

Letzte Aktualisierung: 27. April 2022
Veronica Pastuchs Avatar

Über Veronica Pastuch

Veronica Pastuch leitet seit 15 Jahren erfolgreich multikulturelle Teams im Bereich der Website-Lokalisierung, leistet einen direkten Beitrag zur Übersetzung, Implementierung und dem fortlaufenden Support von über 1.500 mehrsprachigen Websites und strebt dabei stets nach höchster Qualität und Kundenzufriedenheit.

Veronica Pastuchs Avatar
Veronica Pastuch

Executive Vice President, Translation Operations