What Is Back Translation and How to Do It Right?

Adedamola Ojedokun
18 Jul 2023

11 min. read


Accurate translation is crucial for organizations operating in international markets.

Minor mistakes or cultural misunderstandings in translated content can have a marked influence on brand reputation, customer satisfaction, and overall business performance. To address these challenges, professionals use back translation, also known as reverse translation.

But what is back translation?

This article explores what back translation is and how to use it to drastically improve the quality of your translations.

Pro tip: Use a localization management suite, such as Centus, to streamline and automate your back translation process. Learn more.

What is back translation?

what is back translation

Back translation is the process of translating a text from one language to another and then back to the original language by another translator. It is a technique used in the translation industry to ensure the accuracy and quality of translated text.

Back translation is used to evaluate the accuracy of the initial translation, uncover errors or cultural misunderstandings, and verify that the intended message is effectively communicated across languages.

Back translation is a useful tool in many areas that require reliable and accurate translations, such as academic research, medical and pharmaceutical fields, legal and regulatory domains, marketing and advertising, and software localization.

Benefits of back translation and why it's a must!

Since back translation is a quality assurance approach, it maximizes the accuracy and consistency of translated content.

Organizations and language service providers (LSPs) can use this strategy to ensure that they transmit the intended message across different languages while identifying and correcting any potential errors or cultural misunderstandings.

Here are the most significant benefits of back translation:

Maintaining accuracy and consistency of translated content

a target Source: Pexels

Back translation enables a comparison of the source text and the translated version, thereby ensuring that meaning and context are preserved. It also improves the fidelity of the translation by discovering any discrepancies or inaccuracies, resulting in a more accurate and reliable completed translation.

Identifying and rectifying potential errors and cultural misunderstandings

a blackboard Source: Pexels

Language is complex, and effectively expressing cultural nuances, specialized terminology, and idiomatic expressions can be difficult when translating text from one language to another. Back translation is an important quality control method since it highlights potential errors.

Any flaws can be recognized and resolved by having a native speaker skilled in both languages analyze the back-translated content, resulting in a more culturally appropriate and error-free translation.

Ensuring the intended message is preserved across languages

a bullhorn Source: Pexels

One of the main goals of translation is to express the intended message of the source text in the target language. Back translation ensures that the original meaning and tone of the source text are retained.

Translators and clients can determine whether the intended meaning has been accurately conveyed by comparing the back-translated version to the original text. This method allows for modification and adjustment, ensuring successful communication across audiences with different languages.

Enhancing overall translation quality and client satisfaction

a handshake Source: Unsplash

Businesses can significantly improve the overall quality of their translated content by including back translation into the translation procedure. Back translation serves as a validation tool, allowing for strict quality control and reducing the occurrence of errors.

This approach instills trust in customers and end-users, resulting in increased levels of satisfaction and confidence in the translation services provided.

Limitations of back translation

While back translation is an effective way to ensure the accuracy and consistency of translated text, it does have some drawbacks that should be considered. Understanding these limitations can help users make informed decisions about whether and how to properly use back translation.

The key limitations of back translation include:

Challenges related to idiomatic expressions and cultural nuances

Back translation may find it difficult to fully convey the meaning of cultural nuances and idiomatic expressions in the source text.

Language is deeply connected with culture, and certain words or idioms may not have direct equivalents in other languages. When such expressions are translated literally, the outcome might be misleading since it may fail to convey the intended meaning.

Potential loss of context and tone in back-translated content

Back translation focuses on linguistic accuracy while potentially compromising the original context and tone of the content. Contextual signals, such as cultural references or industry terminology, may be lost in the back-translated version. As a result, the translated information may fail to resonate with the target audience.

The importance of human interpretation and cultural sensitivity

Back translation relies on human translators' expertise to accurately translate the information. Unfortunately, even experienced translators may struggle to capture the full core of the original text, particularly when dealing with abstract concepts or subjective sentiments.

Furthermore, cultural sensitivity is necessary for translation, and a completely mechanical translation process may ignore important cultural nuances.

Use cases for back translation

It is crucial to know when to use the back translation method effectively. Here are some situations where using back translation can be beneficial:

Complex technical or specialized content requiring precise translations

Accuracy is important when dealing with complex content such as scientific research papers, engineering records, or technical manuals. Back translation can help preserve the integrity of the original text by ensuring that complex information is conveyed appropriately in the target language.

Back translation should be used when handling technical or specialized content since it ensures that the content is effectively translated while maintaining technical accuracy.

Regulatory and legal requirements for accurate translations

Certain language criteria must be followed in legal papers, contracts, and regulatory writings. In many situations, precision and respect for the original intention are critical. Back translation is an effective quality assurance tool that helps in detecting any errors or mistakes that may develop throughout the translation process.

It should be used when translating legal documents to ensure that the translated text meets the necessary legal and regulatory standards.

Cultural adaptation and localization of marketing materials

When entering new markets, businesses must always modify their marketing materials to appeal to local audiences. Cultural nuances, idiomatic expressions, and wordplay are important elements of efficient marketing.

Back translation should be used when adapting marketing content since it helps identify any potential cultural misunderstandings or language-related concerns. It also ensures that the desired message is retained while considering the cultural preferences of the target audience.

Types of back-translated content

Back translation is a valuable approach that can be used with different types of content. Here are examples of content that can benefit from back translation:

Academic and scientific documents

Back translation is crucial in academic and scientific fields where precision and clarity are important. To maintain the integrity of the original text, research papers, scholarly publications, and conference presentations often require precise translation.

Back translation ensures that scientific concepts, procedures, and discoveries are appropriately conveyed across several languages.

Medical and pharmaceutical materials

Accurate translation is essential in the medical and pharmaceutical industries to ensure patient safety and effective communication among healthcare professionals. Medical research articles, patient information leaflets, clinical trial protocols, medicine labels, and regulatory documentation all benefit from back translation.

It contributes to the consistency of medical terminology, dosage directions, and important safety information across languages.

Learn more about medical translation here.

Legal and regulatory texts

Legal and regulatory content requires accurate translations to maintain its intended meaning and comply with local legislation. Contracts, agreements, patent documents, terms and conditions, and other legal writings must be accurately translated to retain their original legal implications.

Back translation helps detect any errors, omissions, or misinterpretations in complex legal language, thereby ensuring the consistency and accuracy of legal translation.

Marketing and advertising content

Brochures, websites, product descriptions, and advertising campaigns must resonate with the target audience while retaining the intended brand messaging. Back translation can help evaluate the efficacy of localized content by comparing it to the source text.

This helps ensure that the essence of the message is not only retained but also culturally appropriate.

Software and user interface translations

Websites, software applications, and user interfaces usually require translations for international users. Back translation helps determine the accuracy and usability of the translated interface. It helps identify translation errors and usability issues.

This allows developers to modify the localization and offer a consistent experience for users speaking different languages.

Read this article for an in-depth look into software localization.

How to back translate content

how to back translate content

The following are the steps to take when back translating content:

Step 1: Select an experienced translator

Select a qualified translator who is proficient in the target language and has a thorough understanding of the source language. The translator should ideally have subject-matter knowledge in the field of the translated document or text.

Step 2: Study the source text

The translator should have an in-depth understanding of the source text before proceeding with the back translation process. This includes understanding the nuances, cultural references, and idiomatic expressions in the content. A thorough understanding of the source text is required for accurate back translation.

Step 3: Translate the content

At this stage, the back translator converts the material back into the source language from the target language. This phase requires precision and careful attention to detail to achieve an accurate reflection of the original message.

Step 4: Compare the translations

After completing the back translation, compare it to the source text. Examine the differences and similarities between the two versions. Pay attention to the differences in meaning, tone, or context.

Step 5: Identify inconsistencies

Look for inconsistencies or errors that may have occurred during the back translation process. Mistranslations, deletions, or additions could all have an impact on the overall quality and accuracy of the text.

Step 6: Collaborate with subject matter experts

If the back-translated content has any areas of ambiguity or uncertainty, consult subject matter experts who are well-versed in the source language and culture. Their knowledge can assist in addressing specific issues and ensuring a more accurate translation.

Step 7: Validate and modify

It is necessary to modify the back-translated content after a bilingual reviewer or native speaker of the original language has verified it. Their feedback can provide significant insights and help in further fine-tuning the translation.

Step 8: Document the process

Document the back translation process, including any changes, clarifications, or revisions made. This can be used as a reference for future translations and can help enhance the translation process in the long run.

Back translation examples

Example 1

  • Source language: English

  • Target language: Spanish

  • Source text: The cat is on the table.

  • First translation: El gato está en la mesa.

  • Back translation: The cat is on the table.

The back translation in the example above is an identical match to the original text. This indicates that the initial translator performed an excellent job of translating the content into Spanish.

Example 2

  • Source language: English

  • Target language: Spanish

  • Source text: The dog eats the meat.

  • First translation: El perro come la comida.

  • Back translation: The dog eats the food.

In this case, the back translation is not an exact match of the source text. The word for "meat" in Spanish is "carne," while the back translation uses "comida." This is because the term "comida" can also mean "food." The word "comida" may have been chosen for the initial translation since it is more generic and can apply to any type of food.

Back translation, as seen in these examples, can be a useful technique for ensuring translation accuracy. However, back translation is not perfect. It can only detect errors in the translated text. If the source text contains errors, the back translation will be unable to rectify them.

Best practices and recommendations for back translation

best practices for back translation

To enhance the effectiveness of back translation, it is important to adhere to best practices and recommendations. Here are important guidelines to consider when implementing back translation into your translation workflow:

Collaborate with qualified translators and subject matter experts

Engage the services of competent translators who are fluent in both the source and target languages. These professionals should be subject-matter experts to effectively capture the intricacies and technicalities of the content.

Collaborating with subject-matter experts can provide useful insights while also ensuring the accuracy of the back-translated content.

Establish clear communication and feedback loops

Back translation requires effective communication among translators, project managers, and clients. Communicate the project specifications, including the expected level of accuracy and linguistic nuances. Encourage open discussion and provide translators with the opportunity to seek clarification or raise issues throughout the process.

Using localization management tools, like Centus, can help you effectively manage your back translation project.

Incorporate back translation in the translation process workflow

Back translation should be integrated as a systemic step in your translation process. Define when and how back translation will be used, making sure it fits into project schedules and requirements. Doing so will ensure that back translation maintains consistency and quality across your translation projects.

Conduct thorough reviews and validations

Compare the back-translated content with the source text and the intermediate translation to detect any differences or inaccuracies. Collaborate with translators and subject-matter experts to resolve concerns and make necessary changes.

Supplement back translation with other validation methods

While back translation is a useful tool, it should be coupled with other validation methods. Incorporate additional quality assurance procedures like professional reviews, proofreading, and language testing. This will improve the reliability and accuracy of the translated document.

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