What is a back translation?

I’ve been told to get a back translation of a document we had translated by another compay to see if it’s accurate but I don’t know what it means, do you do this?

Hi Adam,

Thank you for your question – the answer is a bit complicated but in summary, although we could do a back translation, it’s unlikely to be very helpful and we don’t recommend it for the reasons explained below.

A back translation is where you take a document which has been translated into another language and translate it back into the original language and compare the two.

For example, you might have a letter in English which you give to translator A to translate into Italian.

You then give that translated Italian letter to another translator, translator B and ask them to translate it back into English which would be the back translation.

Are back translations useful?

You might conclude that if the original English to Italian translation was ‘accurate’ then the two versions of the English document you now have would be identical – it seems logical but unfortunately that is an unsafe assumption for the following reasons:

  • Language translation is an art not a science which means that individual translators will use slightly different words to try to best capture the essence and nuance of the meaning the author is trying to convey. In technical terms we say that the mapping between source and target languages is not symmetric.
  • Even if the original translation from English to Italian is 100% accurate, if the second translation from Italian back to English is not so accurate then the resulting English document could be very different from the original. To check the accuracy of the Italian to English translation you’d need to back translate that as well. As you can see, this very quickly degenerates into an infinite regression which gets you no nearer your goal.

In our opinion, using a back translation to gauge the accuracy of a translation is not an effective strategy.

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