Return Ticket

Why back translations don’t necessarily guarantee a safe roundtrip

When you need material translated from English into a variety of foreign languages, you might look for a standardized way that allows you to ensure accuracy and completeness of the different translations. Back translation seems to be a good option: After rendering the source text into the respective target languages, the target texts are translated back into English by a different set of translators. While the first translator group specializes in translations from English into their respective native language, the second group specializes in translations from the respective foreign language into English.
Roadblock
As straightforward as this may sound, language generally does not work like mathematics where we can arrive at the same result even if we use different numbers and then reverse the process. It is impossible to check a translation the way we verify an invoice, and equations don’t really have a place in linguistics. If we could simply replace one word with another, Google Translate would have already taken over the world—probably not only—of translation (more about that feature below). When a translator takes on an English document to be conveyed in his or her native language, a wide range of considerations enters the process of phrasing each sentence and shaping the material as a whole, including structural and cultural aspects, subtext, style, and target audience. The choices made might stray from the original on a purely lexical and even semantic level. With the back translation, however, an entirely new process of interpreting and expressing the material takes place, this time based on the choices of the initial translator, which will lead inevitably to a different version of the original source text.
Lost
The result, at best, is confusion on the part of the client. Why does the back translation read “creating room for unique experiences” when the original is talking about “helping amazing experiences emerge”? And how did we get from the original “truth of technology” to the “mystery of technology”? Are these mistakes? Is the entire translation a failure? What usually ensues is a back and forth between client and translator via the translation agency, the Client denoting individual lines or words that seem to be “wrong” or missing, making suggestions, and the translator (or sometimes the back translator) trying to come up with alternatives to accommodate the client. Often, however, this kind of piecing together will hurt the flow of the text and might even create inconsistencies, unless the original translator or an editor or reviewer goes over the entire translation once again. There is rarely enough time to do so, which ultimately leads to the risk that the “final” translation achieved via the observations made in the back translation is actually of lower quality than the original translation, which was carefully composed and reviewed as a whole.
Short cuts
Going without the back translation does not mean taking a short cut or missing out on understanding what happens to the original text in its target versions. There are other ways to communicate and discuss the transformation where needed, which we will talk about in the next paragraph, and which will actually cut short the time spent inquiring (on the part of the client) and explaining/revising (on the part of the translator) the items brought up as a result of the back translation as outlined above. Back translation short cuts that will get you nowhere are, as you might have guessed, instant translation tools as provided by Google or Babblefish, since even as they are becoming somewhat more sophisticated, they still reduce language to mathematics.
Safe haven
The best guarantee for high quality translation is working with translator teams selected by a high-end language services provider based on their special expertise and experience in the respective subject matter. If desired by the client, and as a way to avoid going through the process of back translation, the initial translator (in each language) will highlight and comment translation choices that may seem to depart from the original, but are made to serve readability, cultural sensitivities and similar. This is a typical procedure for marketing translations but can be adapted in other areas as well. An editor in the target language then proofreads the translation, ensures its completeness and accuracy, makes necessary corrections and may suggest alternatives to some of the translator’s choices. Before the translation goes to the client, however, the translator will have a chance to review the editor’s changes and notes, consider the material once more in its entirety, and finalize his or her work, including comments. The latter may, as a matter of fact, contain actual back translations of certain phrases to help the client understand the target text, but always in connection with an explanation as to why such a choice was made.
If the truth of translation is that there is never one truth or one translation, the secret of translation is that some languages may have several different words for something that other languages can only express with one term. If you have to go from one to several and then return to one again, the choice might remain a mystery, unless the translator is given an opportunity to elaborate.
Nanette Gobel, MA
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