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What is a backtranslation?
Thread poster: Mary Watson

Mary Watson  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:56
German to English
+ ...
Sep 25, 2004

I have been requested to do a backtranslation. This is the first time for me. I know that it is a "translation of a translation" but what exactly is expected from me? Just a translation? Should it be a literal translation or a polished one? Since it seems to be a review of a translation that was already done, am I expected to make comments on the translation work that was done. From what I can see, it looks like it was a pretty good job. I'm starting to wish I hadn't agreed to do this.

Also, do you charge your normal translation rates?

Thanks in advance for any help and info you can give me.


Nenija Hasanic
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 22:56
English to Bosnian
+ ...
Back to the original language! Sep 25, 2004

Back Translation is the process of translating a document that has already been translated into a foreign language back to the original language - preferably by an independent translator

Translation of raw data such as focus group transcripts back into the language of a client from the language of the consumers is common in market research in Asia. In fact translation remains one of the costliest parts of a market research project. This is because it is an area where costly errors can be built in - in research stages where checks and balances are limited.

The nuances of translation are far-ranging. A literal word in one language, for example, may have no equivalent in another language, or could have a completely different "meaning" or effect in the translated language. This is why translation is an art rather than a science. No translation can be expected to convey perfectly the "meaning" of what consumers meant to convey in their own language. Hence the need for accredited translators who can translate verbatim. All the good work of a focus group moderator in not "interpreting" verbatim comments can be wiped out by a careless translator.

Back translation can improve the reliability and validity of research in different languages by requiring that the quality of a translation is verified by an independent translator translating back into the original language. Original and back translated documents can then be compared.

Due to its high cost, back translation is not overly common, but in very high risk - high return situations is well worth the investment.

Hope this helps...


Carley Hydusik  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:56
Russian to English
+ ...
Questions for you Sep 25, 2004

Actually, I have never heard of this being done, so I am also curious to see what others say, but I was wondering...

Why are they doing this? We know that translators are not machines, and translation is not a question of one-to-one equivalents. Any translation is the result of many different translation decisions and choices that have been made, so it seems to me that however "well" you do and however "well" the first translator did, you will never wind up with the same text. Could you instead ask the client to just use you as an "expert judge" of the translation?



Sonja Tomaskovic (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:56
English to German
+ ...
Checking accuracy Sep 25, 2004


so far, I have never been asked to do a backtranslation, but had to deal with this issue in the past.

Back then, my job was to compose a "master translation" from two different translations which was then backtranslated by another translator.
The idea behind this is that the target text should be as accurate as possible in fields such as medicine, market reasearch, etc., where the meaning of a text should be as close as possible to the target. I know that this sounds odd as the job of a translator is just *that*. But there are a couple of international organizations that choose this technique over proofreading and it is their way to check for accuracy.




JCEC  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:56
English to French
A double bind Sep 25, 2004

I have always refused this type of assignment because you end up in a double bind.

In my experience, it is usually requested by people who are unaware of the complexity of translation and who expect to end with the same text as the original one which is of course totally unrealistic.

And when they do not, it becomes a huge argument on who is the bad translator, the one who did the translation or the one who did the backtranslation.

Have a nice weekend,



Natalie  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:56
Member (2002)
English to Russian
+ ...

Hi Mary Sep 25, 2004

In fact, Nenija has explained everything well enough, I would only like to add something. I have done back translations myself several times, and a few times my own translations from English into Russian were translated back into English.

There are no any special requirements to back translation: just translate the text as you would translate any other document. The back translation will be then compared with the original text. Of course, there will be some difference, it is absolutely normal. But the most important is the meaning, not the form. If the meaning is correct, then everything is okay. If no, the client will ask the translator and back-translator to compare their versions and to find out who is wrong. It does NOT mean that anybody is a bad translator; it just helps to improve the translation if it needs as improvement. In my case, for example, when I saw that the back translator misunderstood a sentence from my translation, I changed this sentence accordingly in order to avoid any ambiguity.

The back translation is one of the ways to check the quality of translation in the fields where the exact meaning is extremely important, for example, in clinical trials.

The rate for the back translation should be just your normal rate.

[Edited at 2004-09-25 22:07]


Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:56
English to Spanish
+ ...
You're right Sep 25, 2004

You're right in wishing you had not agreed to do it. Often, in my experience with back translations, the easier it is to get back to the target language, the worse the translation is because it is literal.

In my opinion back translation is an absolutely futile and useless exercise. A proper exercise would be to give the original and translation to someone who is highly regarded as a competent expert and ask their opinion.

Better yet, give the translation job to someone who is highly regarded as a competent expert in the first place and get it done right the first time.


Lia Fail (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:56
Spanish to English
+ ...
You need to understand WHY they want a backtranslation Sep 26, 2004

See[forums]=1 for more discussions on backtranslation (or search in the Forums with 'backtranslation' as a keyword).

I think it's important to know WHY you are being asked to do the backtranslation. There are various motivations for rquesting backtranslations, but one of them is where the language is an unusual one (e.g. Burmese to Spanish, a language combination for which I recently had to try and locate a translator) and the agency/company needs some confirmation that information has been transferred more or less correctly.

As Natalie pointed out, in this case, "...the most important is the meaning, not the form. If the meaning is correct, then everything is okay."

[Edited at 2004-09-26 00:58]


Mary Watson  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:56
German to English
+ ...
Thanks for the replies Sep 26, 2004

Thanks to all who have responded. It's given me a better understanding of what is expected.


Rosa Maria Duenas Rios (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:56
Recommend to check the other threads on the subject Sep 26, 2004

Mary Watson wrote:

Thanks to all who have responded. It's given me a better understanding of what is expected.

Hi Mary,
If you do a search of the terms "back translation" in the forums, you will see it has been discussed a few times, and you will be ale to read many more different opinions. The last thread I remember is

There, we discussed the purpose of back translations.
Sometimes they are used to check the accuracy of the first translator, and these generally lead to problems and misunderstandings.

However, in the field of copy advertisements, it is not uncommon to receive requests for back translations with the intention not to check for accuracy, but rather to get a "feel" of what is being said in the target language, and these, in general, are quite common and "harmless".


Narasimhan Raghavan  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:26
English to Tamil
+ ...
Backtranslation has limited validity Sep 26, 2004

If the backtranslation agrees with the original text, no problem. If that is not the case, all hell breaks loose. More often than not it leads to rupture between translators and agencies.

Let us take the expression, "bi-monthly". It can mean once in two months or twice a month. The backtranslation is influenced by the choice of the first translator. In the absence of any further context, you cannot fault him either.

Back translation can also lead to hilarious consequences. There is this instance of translating by computer, the expression "Out of sight, out of mind" into Russian. Another computer back translated the resultant Russian term into English as "Invisible idiot!"



Fuad Yahya  Identity Verified
+ ...
I wrote the following piece for the benefit of my clients: Sep 26, 2004

I hope you find it useful.


Parrot  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:56
Spanish to English
+ ...
Fuad did a beautiful job explaining Sep 27, 2004

and unless he wants more jobs of this kind, I'm rather sorry to say soicon_biggrin.gif...

Because I find it a headache, but it is necessary, especially in critical / developmental language areas where the set terminology of one language may not be so set in the target.

Regarding binding legal contracts in printed form, this is considered necessary as a matter of system. If you get a good translator, it may seem a drudge, but try getting a bad one. icon_frown.gif


Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:56
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Maybe it depends on language pairs... Sep 29, 2004

[quote]Narasimhan Raghavan wrote:

Back translation can also lead to hilarious consequences. There is this instance of translating by computer, the expression "Out of sight, out of mind" into Russian. Another computer back translated the resultant Russian term into English as "Invisible idiot!"

My father had a story where the back translation of 'The spirit si willing, but hte flesh is weak went:

'The vodka's fine, but the meat smells bad' ....

Quite seriously, I once did a back translation of answers to a questionnaire on products to help patients with incontinence, and it was quite important to translate the nuances in the answers correctly - they used the oddest expressions and euphemisms to hide their embarrassment.

The client, who manufactured the products, was hoping for hints about how to improve them, but also wanted to know if people were satisfied, and then nothing should be changed!

[Edited at 2004-09-29 06:06]

[Edited at 2004-09-29 06:12]


tortainc  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 13:56
English to Spanish
BackTranslations can be very important... Dec 4, 2004

In the advertising field, for instance, sometimes translators embellish the copy in Spanish moving slightly away from the original English text and this can cause a very serious legal problem for the agency or the final client. When the English original says "this product was intended to provide the user with...." and the translation says "este producto le brinda al usuario..." (this product offers the user...) is different from the original English since it is making particular promises to the user. With the back-translation the client's legal department can catch these potential legal problems. In this particular case "este producto se creó con el fin de brindarle al usuario..." (“this product was created with the purpose of offering the user...”) would be a closer rendering. Whether that purpose is achieved or not, that is different, but the Spanish copy is not making a promise of any kind. If you translate "I don't want to feel more discomfort..." into "No quiero sentir molestias nunca más" (which sounds better in Spanish - that is, "I don't want to feel discomfort anymore") a legal situation can be created and this can be caught in the back-translation. The translation as literal as it might sound would be "No quiero sentir más molestias" (I don't want to feel more discomfort). Another example is "This product can help you improve...." translated as "Este producto le ayuda a mejorar" (This product helps you improve....) is different from "Este producto puede ayudarle a mejorar" (This product can help you improve...."). In any event, sometimes even very careful translators and editors might overlook important misinterpretations of the copy that can be caught in the back-translation. That is, of course, if the client even reads the back-translation which is another story!

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