The disadvantages of back-translation

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As the well-known quote by Yevgeny Yevtushenko implies, a beautiful translation is not faithful, and if it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.

When it comes to back-translation, text that has been translated into another language and then translated back to its original language, trying to keep the prose both faithful and beautiful can be quite a chore. And marrying these two is never easy.

It may seem like a pointless exercise, but back-translation actually has a number of uses.  For example, some medical and pharmaceutical translations are required to be checked this way, to assure as much accuracy (and patient safety) as possible.  Back-translation is also common in advertising.  But it crops up in other places, as well. In the literary world, for example, author Mark Twain famously back-translated the French version of his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”.  While it was done in a typical joking way, Twain seems to have realized one of the major disadvantages of back-translations: They can’t accurately reproduce an author’s voice.  Think of back-translation as making a photocopy of a photocopy.  The original translator already has to make changes to adapt a work linguistically and culturally.  When it’s translated back, of course the original elements of the text will be even harder to find.  As the quote above implies, a beautiful backtranslation is probably a poor translation.

Here are a few more disadvantages of back-translation:

  1. Cost. When getting an estimate for a translation and back-translation, some clients might find it hard to accept the idea of essentially paying double the price, but after all, back-translation still requires a translator to translate something. Recently, with the appearance of translation software and ‘bots, people may be tempted to cut corners by using these to do it themselves.  And in a way, that makes sense.  If you want to make sure that one major, essential concept has been correctly translated into another language, why not get a ‘bot to do the job?  But ‘bots fail when it comes to catching more subtle aspects of a text, like idiomatic expressions, advertising language and humor.
  1. Inefficiency: Among a translator’s worst nightmares is being asked to do a back-translation of a text that was translated by someone they have no contact with – for example, a translator from another company. If they end up finding what seem like major differences with the original text, they can’t ask the translator why they happened or what choices were made. And while this type of backtranslation (referred to as blind) is useful for checking the accuracy of facts, it is sometimes a difficult exercise in texts where creativity is needed.
  1. Lack of localization feedback: As this author rightly points out, there’s a lot a back-translation won’t tell you, including how your text will be perceived by your audience. A qualified, professional translator isn’t just a master of language; they also have a deep understanding of the culture(s) their languages are associated with. A client who just reads a backtranslation, may miss what a translator has done to create a culturally and linguistically accurate translation.

This is where it is important for the client reviewer of the backtranslation to really understand what they are checking for.  They are looking for content and fact inclusion, they are not looking for sentence structure or voice or even sometimes specific vocabulary.

Most translators advise against back-translations for literary works, and suggest limiting them when it comes to any other kind of document, as well.  You should consider having a back-translation done if:

  • it’s required by law or by organizations that have to approve your text.
  • you need to make sure basic ideas, not fine points like humor or writing style, have been correctly conveyed.
  •  you need to check that all facts show up in the translation, like data or numbers.

Otherwise, there are luckily some other ways to check the accuracy and effectiveness of a translated document.  One is to work with a translation company that uses a team of translators to verify each others’ work, through collaboration, proofreading, back-translation, or other methods.  Another idea is to have someone – or even multiple people – from the target culture read and review it.  A professional agency includes this always in their internal quality control process.

aiaTranslations can provide backtranslation of any translation.  Contact us for a free quote.

By: Alysa Salzberg, Molly Naughton and Ilona Knudson

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