questionable value of back
is an online article about localizing web sites to address foreign
the Right Language Online
Much of it is good advice, but
it includes this questionable
the best way to ensure you lost
nothing in translation is
to translate the whole thing back to the original language."
disagree, and here's why.
This practice is known as a
translation". The premise: translation is a black box
whose internal workings are unknown, and whose operator cannot be
contacted. To discover the problems that were caused by the first black
box, a client should run the results through a second black box and
compare it to the original.
There are clients who need
them. Sometimes they are used to provide evidence to a third
that a translation has been
reviewed for errors. This is common in advertising
clinical trials. A back
translation can be helpful to
illustrate the bad impression that can be made by a poor translation,
or to recover a lost original document.
Here's a site that
illustrates some of the best practices to be followed.
are problems with
- Many times, a translator's
role is to be part of a
team, whose goal is to produce a final polished document. A translator
who works under those conditions may become aware of minor errors and
inconsistencies in the
original, and may become accustomed to fixing those errors without
saying anything to the authors.
However, when the client wishes to confirm the quality of the original
translation, the translator must be specifically instructed to
produce an accurate
translation, including all inconsistencies or errors found in the first
translation Otherwise, the translator
may correct those
errors, which would give the client a false sense of
- Errors in a translation will
not necessarily be communicated
by a back translation. Here are two examples from actual
- A contract in
English contained the word "outstanding",
which has two meanings. The intended sense in the document was "unpaid,
owed". However, the Spanish translator had used the Spanish word"sobresaliente". That
can be translated as "outstanding" but with a different meaning:
"exceptionally good, superior". A simple translation back into English
would not tell the client that the
Spanish version contained this error.
- A Spanish translation
multiple inconsistencies in word choice and style.
One problem was with acronyms and
translator sometimes used the original abbreviations from the source
document, such as "psi" (pounds per square inch). Other times, Spanish
equivalents were used: "P&ID" (Piping and
Instrumentation Diagram) had been rendered as "DTI" (Diagrama
de Tubería e Instrumentación).
Both terms would
probably be understood by the Spanish readers but the English
backtranslation wouldn't show the inconsistency.
In each case,
a translation into English would not indicate
problem or inconsistency in the Spanish version. Extra notes and
explanations are needed. But there is no reason to translate the entire
document to convey that message.
The second translator will
not use the same words and style
as the original writer. For every difference found, the reviewer will
have to decide whether it's simply a different choice of words, or
whether this represents an error, and in which translation: the first
or the second.
The extra people involved
— second translator and reviewer
extra time, money, and opportunity for error.
In almost every case, a better
way to judge the
quality of a
translation is to obtain an opinion from a reviewer. Ideally
this would include with annotations and corrections such as
the ones mentioned in the link above. This
can be obtained more quickly and at less cost, without a complete back
For further reading:
revised: December 3, 2014
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