Back Translation: top 5 things to know

April 10, 2017

What are the top 5 things you need to know about back translation?


  1. Back translation requires more linguists.

Three separate linguists are involved in the back translation and reconciliation process: the original translator, the editor, and then a second translator who translates the target content back to the source language. Back translation MUST be performed by a different translator than the translator that worked on the original translation to ensure there are no biases.

  1. It will cost you time and money.

The back translation process takes as much time as the forward translation, with a similar cost, thereby doubling your translation spend. The back translation time required will at least double because you need to take into account the back-and-forth conversations between the translators to reconcile the final translated versions.

  1. Don’t expect a mirror image.

The back translation will never exactly match the source text. Expecting a mirror image is unrealistic and impossible. You will find details in the back translation that may look incorrect, and this is when you need to rely on your expert translators to provide feedback. Remember that translation is a meaning-based art and synonyms lie in the eye of the translator, for example, “waste” and “trash” carry the same meaning and do not affect the quality or accuracy of a text. Minor differences do not mean failure.

  1. Back translation is not an exact science.

All translations are a little bit of science mixed with a little bit of magic. There is no such thing as 100% accuracy in either forward or back translations – but back translation is a process that can get you a step closer to perfect. Remember – you can never take the human out of translations and we humans are not perfect.

  1. Best practices are hard to come by.

Finally, it’s worth noting that this topic is important enough that the International Society for Pharmacoeconomics and Outcomes Research (ISPOR) — finding a lack of consistency in back-translation practices — tackled back translation as part of their effort to create guidelines and standards for translation within life sciences. The abstract of the research, called Principles of Good Practice for the Translation, is here. ISPOR does propose approaches to back translation and chronology within the process but this is a subject that requires much more research and thought leadership to perfect the process.

So … why back translate?

While it’s true that all translations must be accurate, certain industries like pharmaceutical and medical device often require an extra level of surety. One method to providing surety is through back translations.

A “back translation” or a “reverse translation” is the process of taking the already translated content, the “forward translation,” and translating it back into the original language. The purpose of a back translation is to evaluate the accuracy of the translation compared to the original text. Back translations can improve the quality of overall translations by confirming the relatedness to the original source text. Back translations are often required by regulatory or legal requirements as well. Again, back translations evaluate the base meaning between source and target texts and are then reconciled. Reconciliation of back translations is the process of highlighting any differences between the two versions.