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The questionable value of back translations

by Steven Marzuola

There is an online article about localizing web sites to address foreign markets:

Speaking the Right Language Online

Much of it is good advice, but it includes this questionable line:

"... the best way to ensure you lost nothing in translation is to translate the whole thing back to the original language."

I disagree, and here's why.

This practice is known as a "back 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 party that a translation has been reviewed for errors. This is common in advertising and medical 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.

However, there are problems with back translations.

  1. 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 security. 
  2. Errors in a translation will not necessarily be communicated by a back translation. Here are two examples from actual experience.
  3. In each case, a translation into English would not indicate any 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.

  4. 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.
  5. The extra people involved — second translator and reviewer — incur 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 translation.

For further reading:

Last revised: December 3, 2014
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