What Are Back Translations and When Are They Necessary?

Back translation is the process of translating a previously translated document back to the original language, using a different translator. Depending on the size of the document, it can be costly to do, so it is not requested that often. However, there are instances when the process of completing a back translation is beneficial, or even necessary. It is a great way to verify the validity of the original translation work, and can help to avoid unnecessary issues once an item goes to print.

Since this process requires a second translator to review and re-translate the material, it will increase the cost of the translation project, so knowing when if a back translation will be beneficial to perform is helpful. If the original material contains local idioms or specialized jargon, it could certainly benefit to go through this process. This can help lessen the chances of having an overly literal translation that does not translate properly back into the original language. It may also be used to check marketing and advertising slogans. If a slogan is translated too literally, it often loses its meaning or advertising power.

You may have heard of the milk advertising slogan, “Got Milk?” When putting the slogan into Spanish material, it was originally translated as “¿Tienes leche?” This is a correct literal translation of the words. However, when you translate that particular phrase back into English, it actually means “Do you have milk?”, which can imply “Are you lactating?” This is not the intended meaning of the original marketing campaign, so the issue of not having performed a back translation in this particular case is evident. Had a second translator done a back translation of the slogan, the mistranslation could have been avoided.

Back translation is also often used in research texts, when verifying the reliability of the responses is of highest importance. The translator responsible for the back translation will help the research team ensure that each response given is correct and appropriate. If it is not, the team can then investigate the true translation of what the individual intended to say.

Have you ever witnessed a translation job that you think could have benefited from back translation, or seen an example of back translation that caused one to find a serious error in the original? Let us know about it in the comments!