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Back translation: What is it? And why?

Back translation: What is it, and why you might want one

It goes without saying that good quality is required from any translation. However, in some cases, translation quality is of paramount importance. An inaccurate translation of certain medical or legal documents can literally be lethal, or criminal. In such situations, extra measures need to be taken to ensure that the translation accurately conveys both the facts, and the message, of the original. One of the ways you can do this is through back translation. 

In this article, we’ll take a quick look at what back translation is; why it may be necessary, and how it should be done.

What is back translation? 

Back translation involves translating a previously translated document back into its original language. The result is then compared with the original to indicate potential inaccuracies and mistakes. 

Back translation is very effective when done well, helping to ensure the best quality for highly sensitive documents. 

Who needs back translation? 

As mentioned above, back translation enables a client to ensure the accuracy of a translated document. If the document you need to be translated deals with high-risk or sensitive information; and/or if mistakes could have potentially major consequences, this may be an appropriate step. 

Various regulatory bodies and ethics committees may require back translations of clinical trials, medical devices instructions, potentially dangerous processes. 

While serving as proof of accuracy, back translation can also help identify ambiguities and cultural misunderstandings. These can then be addressed before the translated document is published. 

How is it done? 

Back translation should be performed by a translator who had no involvement in the initial translation, and has no knowledge of the content of the original document. This allows for a more ‘pure’ process, and better quality control, as they won’t be relying on their memory of the original. 

It is important to remember that the result will never be exactly the same as the original. Translation is not a mathematical formula, and there can be many ways to translate the same concept into a foreign language. 

In fact, if you have several professional translators work on the same document, their results will always differ. There will be differences both in the exact words they use, and in their style. However, the same facts and ideas should all be there. 

After back translation has been performed, the result is compared to the original document and any areas where the two texts differ significantly are highlighted. Depending on the results, there may be a need to clarify ambiguities in the original text; or provide an alternative translation of the original, or some of its parts. 

Things to keep in mind 

While it is good for ensuring accuracy and managing risks, back translation doesn’t assess any of the other translation quality criteria, such as quality and style of expression, typos and grammatical errors. There may still be a need for proofreading and editing to produce a well-written translated version. 

What is more, back translation can be a fairly lengthy process — it is essential to take the additional time and costs into account.

QuickSilver Translate offers a full range of specialised translation services: find out more…

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