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Back Translation
Thread poster: Henry Hinds

Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 05:09
English to Spanish
+ ...
May 30, 2007

In another posting I made, a colleague made a comment about back translation that I wanted to follow up on, but not in that thread. It was noted that it is used by certain clients to verify the accuracy of translations, specifically in the pharmaceutical industry as mentioned by this colleague.

I know this has been discussed before, but the question here would be, what value, if any, do you think back translation could have? Or do you think it could be of value in some areas but not in others?

I have not done a large amount of back translation, but the times I have done it I have felt extremely uncomfortable. It is not a natural way to work, because all of one's priorities become turned around.

For instance, the more literal a translation is (literal translation of terms, preservation of syntax from the source language, etc.), the easier it becomes to "reconstruct" the original because it shows through. This is called some kind of a syndrome by linguists but the term escapes me now... would it be "third language syndrome"?

In any case, since my priority is normally to produce top quality work, I find myself being able to produce something comprehensible out of something that is not very comprehensible in the source text. Yet to truly reflect the quality of that source text (the translation I am returning to the original language), I would have to produce something that looks horrible.

In such cases all I can really do is leave a note to the effect that "yes, this English version I have produced looks fairly good, but the Spanish version I worked from would not be very comprehensible to a reader". Any obvious inaccuracies, of course, would be rendered, but that would never tell the whole story.

Your comments are cordially invited...


 

Marie-Hélène Hayles  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:09
Italian to English
+ ...
comment May 30, 2007

Back translation is a tricky area. I think however that if something is incomprehensible or ambiguous in the original translation, it is your duty to render it in the same way in the back translation. The whole point is to check the accuracy of the original translation, so you are doing your client a disservice if you polish it up in any way (other than providing a natural-sounding translation, of course).

Having said that, a few weeks ago I had a situation where the end client instructed the agency that my back-translation had to be tweaked so that it used exactly the same terms as the original. I refused to do so, as it would no longer have been a translation of the text provided, but instead provided comments on why my translation was justified. In some cases I even commented on why the original translation was justified - in one case, I had translated "Buon compleanno" (from a birthday card sent to trial participants) as "Many happy returns", which got the end client hopping mad because the original said "Happy birthday"and they thought it must have been translated incorrectly...

At the end of that little experience, I was left wondering whether it was the client who didn't know what back-translations are for, or me!


 

xxxMarc P  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:09
German to English
+ ...
Pointless exercise May 30, 2007

Back translation is a pointless exercise, based upon a flawed understanding of what translation actually is.

Translation is a product of the original author's intended meaning, the translator's interpretation of it, and the translator's formulation of his or her interpretation in the target language. The first translation is therefore already the product of three variables. As any translator knows, any one of these factors in isolation or a combination of them may be the cause of a deficit in a translated text, and without reference to the original text, the reason for the deficit may not be clear.

Two things are likely to happen in "back translation" of a defective translation. Either the flaws in the original translation will be retained, and possibly even multiplied, as in a game of Chinese whispers. Or a skilled translator may succeed in correctly inferring the meaning of the original from a poor translation and producing a perfectly usable text from it.

It follows therefore that a badly written original (source) text may result in a good or bad back translation, that a well written original may result in a good or bad back translation, and that in none of these four permutations can the standard of the intermediate translation necessarily be inferred from the end result.

The proponents of back translation argue that back translation takes a different form, being "literal", possibly annotated, etc. In that case, though, why call it translation at all, and why not simply allow the translator to produce a report on the standard of the original translation.

Marc


 

Clarisa Moraña  Identity Verified
Argentina
Local time: 08:09
Member (2002)
English to Spanish
+ ...
I don't understand the reasons May 30, 2007

I've noticed that some of my colleagues, when they know their translation is going to be backtranslated, do not think in rendering a good translation, they prefer to do a literal translation (that sometimes means nothing or it does not sound fluent in the translated language) instead. The purpose of a translation is to convey the meanings of the source text in a target language. I believe that to insure the quality of a translation, it has to be proofread by someone with good knowledge of the subject matter.



[Edited at 2007-05-30 16:07]


 

Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 13:09
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
The value of back translation May 30, 2007

Henry Hinds wrote:
In another posting I made, a colleague made a comment about back translation that I wanted to follow up on, but not in that thread. It was noted that it is used by certain clients to verify the accuracy of translations, specifically in the pharmaceutical industry as mentioned by this colleague.


Let me show you the value of back translation. Here is the Afrikaans translation of your first paragraph. You can ask five different Afrikaans translators if it is a good translation, and I hope all five will say "yes". But if you had wanted to check if (a) all the essential facts are present, (b) no additional facts are introduced except where permissible, and (c) a reader is not likely to misunderstand any of it, then a back translation may be an option.

Forward:

'n Kollega het onlangs 'n opmerking in 'n ander gespreksdraad gemaak oor terugvertaling. Ek wou graag daarop reageer, maar nie in daardie gespreksdraad nie. Daar is genoem dat terugvertaling deur sommige kliënte gebruik word om die akkuraatheid van vertalings te staaf; dit gebeur veral in die farmaseutiese bedryf, soos my kollega ook genoem het.

Back:

A colleague recently made a comment in another discussion thread about back translation. I would have dearly liked to repond to that, but not in that discussion thread. There it was mentioned that back translation is used by some clients to stave the accuracy of translations; it happens especially in the pharmaceutical industry, as my colleague had also mentioned.

Now anyone who can't speak Afrikaans can form an idea of what the translation is like. The client can now decide whether "discussion thread" is an acceptable translation of "posting", and if he is uncertain, he may refer the matter back to the translation with an indication of his concerns. The client may also suspect that "follow up" and "respond" are not quite equivalents, and this would be his opportunity to verify it with the translator. Ideally, the translator should respond by fixing the "error" or explaining it away. Finally, it will be noticed that the original read "I made" whereas the back translation doesn't seem to imply that the original posting was made by the speaker. The client might decide that his is a crucial piece of information, and ask the translator to include it.

Of course, the client may also ask about things or demand things which display ignorance of how different languages work. The client may for example demand that the first two Afrikaans sentences be merged (as they are in English), and I'd be happy to oblige such a silly request if I can have the opportunity to tell the client that merging them in Afrikaans would result in a very cumbersome sentence. The client may also ask why the word "back translation" is used more in the Afrikaans than in the English, to which my answer would be that the passage would otherwise be ambiguous (it would not be clear what "it" refers to in the second/third sentence).


[Edited at 2007-05-30 19:11]


 

Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 13:09
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Happy Birthday May 30, 2007

Marie-Hélène Hayles wrote:
...in one case, I had translated "Buon compleanno" (from a birthday card sent to trial participants) as "Many happy returns", which got the end client hopping mad because the original said "Happy birthday"and they thought it must have been translated incorrectly...


If the client was mad, then he didn't understand the purpose of back translation. A back translation highlights possible issues, and it is to be expected that a back translation will read "differently" from the original, because... languages differ.

I also had to translate "Happy Birthday". My translation was "Lekker verjaar!" which could have been back translated as "Tasty birthday-celebrate". If this had in fact happened, and if the client had queried it, it would have been my pleasure to assure the client (with reasons) why my translation is in fact more appropriate in the target culture than a literal translation of "happy birthday" would have been.


 

GoodWords  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 06:09
Spanish to English
+ ...
The scenario is hypothetical, but the text is not May 30, 2007

Let us suppose there was this source text in Spanish:
La Ciudad, moderno centro de reunión del arte, la cultura y la historia, abriga innumerables festivales artísticos y gastronómicos que llenan de vitalidad sus calles, como la Muestra Internacional de Danza que reúne destacadas figuras de la danza, el canto y la música.


The following translation was produced:
The XXX city, modern collection point of the art, the culture and history, shelter innumerable artistic and gastronomical festivales that fill of vitality their streets, like "Show International of the Dance" that reunites to outstanding figures of the dance, the song and music. [I am not making this up]


Let us suppose the client commissioned a back-translation to check it, but with the instruction "I want the second translator to see it with an unbiased outlook, so don't give him/her any information about the history of the text, just ask the translator to put it into Spanish." The translator, seeing the above, said to him/herself, "How poor! But since it's clearly almost a word-for-word translation of an original Spanish text, it's quite easy to recreate a good semblance of the original," and did so. In Spanish, the text reads quite well, and thus the quality of the English version was not revealed by the back-translation to Spanish.

The above scenario is hypothetical, but the rest of the story is real: I have had a few assignments that I strongly suspected were back-translations, but inquiries to the agency resulted in the instruction, "the client says, no, it's all there is, just translate it as well as you can." In the absence of instructions to the contrary, I follow, as Henry said above, the usual policy of creating a top quality text. If it was indeed a back-translation, and the client thought to get an unbiased evaluation by not revealing that fact, then the exercise was a failure.


 

Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 13:09
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
No reference to the original original May 30, 2007

Marc P wrote:
Or a skilled translator may succeed in correctly inferring the meaning of the original from a poor translation and producing a perfectly usable text from it.


A back translator is not supposed to guess what the "original" was. The back translator should translate as literally as possible, and he had to do it specifically *without* taking into account that there had been an original original.

In that case, though, why call it translation at all, and why not simply allow the translator to produce a report on the standard of the original translation.


That would shift the evaluating the translation from the client to the translator.

I have also found that a back translation highlights possible issues which are not always apparent when simply evaluating the original translation.

I agree with your comment about the quality of the source text, however. Back translations are wasted on poor source texts. Ideally, a forward translation should only be made once the source text has been finalised, and a back translation should be one of the last pieces of quality checking -- after proofreading and editing of the forward translation has been done.


 

Nesrin  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 12:09
English to Arabic
+ ...
Back translation not justified May 30, 2007

Samuel Murray wrote:

But if you had wanted to check if (a) all the essential facts are present, (b) no additional facts are introduced except where permissible, and (c) a reader is not likely to misunderstand any of it, then a back translation may be an option.



All these very valid points can be achieved by a good proofreader with a good grasp of the source language.
I think we translators have the duty to explain to the clients why they shouldn't waste their time and money on such a pointless exercise, as Marc describes it.


 

Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 13:09
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Stupid clients get what they deserve May 30, 2007

GoodWords wrote:
I have had a few assignments that I strongly suspected were back-translations, but inquiries to the agency resulted in the instruction, "the client says, no, it's all there is, just translate it as well as you can." In the absence of instructions to the contrary, I follow, as Henry said above, the usual policy of creating a top quality text.


A client that tries to use back translation to do quality control, without letting the translator know that what he is producing is a back translation, is stupid, and gets what he/she deserves -- absolutely no value for money.

A translator is a linguistic expert, and has a vital role to play in ensuring that a message is communicated across language barriers. Deliberately withholding vital information from the expert may lead to interesting results... which are ultimately useless.


 

xxxMarc P  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:09
German to English
+ ...
Back Translation May 30, 2007

Samuel Murray wrote:

Marc P wrote:
Or a skilled translator may succeed in correctly inferring the meaning of the original from a poor translation and producing a perfectly usable text from it.


A back translator is not supposed to guess what the "original" was.


Please don't misquote me, Samuel. I didn't say that a back translator should "guess" what the "original" was.

Translation is the transfer of meaning. A translation is supposed to convey the meaning of the original. A bad translation conveys that meaning badly, but the astute reader - in this case the producer of the back translation - may well be able to infer it. That is what translation is about, all the time; attempting to understand what message the author is trying to get across. The fact that the source text presented to the second translator is itself a translation does not change that fact.

Having inferred the meaning, a good translator will naturally express it well in the target language.

The back translator should translate as literally as possible, and he had to do it specifically *without* taking into account that there had been an original original.


A "literal translation" is an oxymoron. Translation is the conveyance of meaning, not the substitution of words. In closely related language pairs such as English-Afrikaans, "literal translation" and translation proper may diverge less, but "literal translation" is still an oxymoron (like "machine translation"). "Back translation" as you describe it does not therefore even merit the description of "translation". It presupposes that the first translation has a meaning in its own right, independent of the intended message of an author.

In that case, though, why call it translation at all, and why not simply allow the translator to produce a report on the standard of the original translation.

That would shift the evaluating the translation from the client to the translator.


As I understand it, the whole point of back translation is to kid monolingual clients (or to allow them to kid themselves) into believing that they are actually able to understand a foreign language. If the client understood the foreign language, there would be no need for back translation. Without a knowledge of the foreign language, there is no way that the client can gauge the translation from it. An attempt to do so results in silly conclusions, like the Chinese translation of Coca-Cola actually meaning "bite the dead tadpole", or "Ich bin ein Berliner" meaning "I am a doughnut". The unfortunate thing is that there is a grain of truth in these urban legends, but of course only a grain. The actual picture is far more complicated and has to be explained to the customer; it can't be encapsulated in a pseudo-translation. It's highly misleading to say that "Ich bin ein Berliner" translates back as "I am a doughnut", but that is precisely - albeit generally in less exaggerated form - what back translation does.

I have also found that a back translation highlights possible issues which are not always apparent when simply evaluating the original translation.


In the absence of any other form of quality control, back translation will no doubt identify some errors. It will detect missing sentences, for example. But it is an incredibly crude quality control instrument. It is like gauging a translation by running the spelling checker on it; yes, it may reveal some errors, but it says very, very little about the text's fitness for purpose.

I fail to see what issues could possibly be highlighted which would not be identified by a thorough review. Back translation takes the opposite approach: switch off thinking for a while, turn on the back translation machine, and somehow the errors will magically become obvious.

I agree with your comment about the quality of the source text, however. Back translations are wasted on poor source texts.


Not only is a back translation wasted on poor source texts, it does not even identify whether the source text is poor or not. As I said originally, there is therefore no way of knowing whether a "poor back translation" is the result of a poor original source text, or one of the other four possible causes.

By contrast, a poor original source text will have been identified during production of a good initial translation.

Marc


 

lingomania
Local time: 21:09
Italian to English
Back translating vs proofreading May 30, 2007

This seems to be the conclusion here. I'm sure there will be something lost using the former.

Rob


 

Patrice  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 04:09
Member
French to English
+ ...
it has specific uses May 31, 2007

Back-translation works when there is only one choice of term or phrase. I have done my share of back-translation with respect to medical equipment and it's crucial in that event that there is a common understanding.

 

Steven Capsuto  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 07:09
Member (2004)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Pointless? Hardly May 31, 2007

Marc P wrote:

Back translation is a pointless exercise, based upon a flawed understanding of what translation actually is.


Although it's not a technique I would recommend to someone who didn't request it on their own, I certainly see its value.

I've worked on several projects -- often involving multiple translators, typesetters, and agencies -- where the client was able to spot mistranslations and even problematic wording in their own source texts thanks to a properly done backtranslation.

This question of problems in source texts is especially important, since no translator, agency editor, or proofreader is likely to spot them.

I can't understand why it is so fashionable to dismiss this tool out of hand, when I have seen its benefits time and again.

The key is to make sure that everyone involved (client, backtranslator, editors) has reasonable expectations of what backtranslation can and cannot do. For instance, the client must understand that minor variations in wording don't indicate a problem, but that changes in meaning almost certainly do.

Backtranslators must understand they are not to fix anything or smooth over awkward wording as they might in a normal translation job. They also should feel free to put in explanatory notes, indicating ambiguities or connotations that may be undesired.

Finally, it's essential that everyone grasp that backtranslation is not a substitute for good editing and proofreading. In fact, it should not be undertaken until editing and proofing are complete.

[Edited at 2007-05-31 04:44]


 

Clarisa Moraña  Identity Verified
Argentina
Local time: 08:09
Member (2002)
English to Spanish
+ ...
What happens if...? May 31, 2007

The back translator is not good? The results will be ugly, and that won't be the translator's fault!

 
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