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The sentence "I have no time" translated into French and the French sentence translated into English as "I do not have time"Back translation is often represented as a quality assurance method, but we encourage our clients to carefully consider when to use back translation. The nature of language and of translation means that back translation doesn’t necessarily guarantee or improve quality. It also adds both time and cost to your project. Keep reading for our recommendations on when back translation is worth that extra investment.

What exactly is back translation?

It’s called that because you are translating copy back into the original source language.  Here is an example:

  1. Our client sends us a slide deck about a new drug. They need it translated into Spanish for a US-based patient population.
  2. One of our English > Spanish healthcare translation teams translates the slide deck into US Spanish.
  3. One of our Spanish > English healthcare translation teams translates the new Spanish version of the deck into English. They do not see the original English piece.
  4. We compare and reconcile the original English copy against the “back translation” from Spanish into English.  This may incur revisions in translation or in back translation.

That comparison is what we ultimately deliver to our clients. If they do not speak or understand the target language, back translation is a way for them to determine that the translation captures the meaning of the source copy.

Pitfalls of back translation

As mentioned earlier, the nature of language is such that it’s highly unlikely that a back translation will match the source document word for word. It may happen for some select phrases but generally it’s possible for the back translation to say the same thing as the source copy in a different way. We’ve seen hundreds of examples of this. When working on an update to a patient brochure about the HIV treatment BIKTARVY, the line “Why is staying on treatment important?” was back translated as “Why is it important to continue with the treatment?” At first glance, those look like two entirely different sentences. When you break them down piece by piece, they communicate the same idea.

We believe that back translation doesn’t always guarantee or improve translation quality because it emphasizes literal equivalences. When you’ve worked with languages for as long as we have, you know that a literal translation isn’t necessarily a better one. Clients who aren’t as experienced or immersed in global communications can get hung up on the back translation and are determined for it to be nearly identical to the source English. Sometimes this is simply not possible. For example, it is not correct in Spanish to use the word “take” when describing an injectable medication. In other cases, an edit can be made that does not introduce an error but results in the translation sounding less natural.

When to use back translation

The one instance when back translation is almost always required is for projects that require regulatory approval. Content that must be approved by a regulatory body presents a unique challenge because if the regulatory body doesn’t understand the language that the material is translated into, they can’t approve the translation. In this instance, back translation is necessary so that the approving entity can sign off on the translation. When this is the case, ensuring that the back translation process is managed effectively and efficiently will be key to staying on time, on budget, and on brand.

A spilled bag of beans in a grocery storeAnd speaking of on brand, another instance of when to use back translation is for creative copy such as taglines or slogans. Back translating creative copy is a double-edged sword. As with regulatory approval, brand managers who don’t understand the target language need a way to determine what the translated tagline is saying to the target audience. The nature of creative copy, however, means that a back translation is unlikely to capture the nuance and cultural value of the translation. Consider idioms. If you were to translate the phrase “spill the beans” literally into French, it would suggest an image of a cleanup on aisle 4 rather than a surprise being spoiled. A French speaker would be more likely to say “vendre la mèche,” which translates to English as “to sell the fuse.” A qualified translator would know better than to translate “vendre la mèche” literally and would use an equivalent idiom in the target language. If your creative copy goes beyond a simple idiom with an equivalent in the target language, transcreation may be the answer.

Transcreation and back translation

BMW's German and the English slogans side by side

Transcreation is the process by which a message gets adapted for a foreign or local market in another language without losing its original intent. It is a more intensive process than translation and may not be warranted for all creative copy. For example, one of our clients sent a newsletter to their employees about a new health insurance premium discount program. To enroll in the program, employees had to complete two steps. To make the newsletter eye-catching, they designed it with an image of a dancing duo and used the headline “Do the LiveWell two-step.” The two-step might not resonate with a global audience, but since this was a one-off newsletter and the headline had more to do with the enrollment process than the program itself, we advised our client that we didn’t think transcreation was warranted. We wanted to maintain the dancing theme if possible, so we asked the translation team if they could still write a catchy headline that alluded to dancing and the fact that enrollment involved only two steps (or at the very least, that enrollment was simple). And that’s exactly what they did! If your copy is a slogan meant to capture your brand’s identity, transcreation will probably serve you better.

Back translation is still a useful complement to transcreation, since ultimately a branding or marketing team will need to know what the transcreated slogan says. Whereas traditional back translation is done by a translator totally independent from the original source > target translation, asking the transcreator to provide a back translation allows them to explain the meaning and intent behind their choices. It can’t hurt to have an independent translator provide a back translation for the transcreated copy, but given the goal of a tagline or slogan, we recommend utilizing focus groups. A back translator’s perspective can certainly be valuable, but an asset as significant as a global tagline or slogan should have buy-in from more than one or two individuals.

Trust in your translation team

The idea of using back translation as a universal quality control can be tempting. It can provide a sense of control over translated materials when you don’t understand the target language. After learning more about the realities of the process, perhaps you’ll be more selective about when to use back translation. There are certainly circumstances in which back translation is necessary or advantageous. When those circumstances are not present, there are many other quality assurance measures that can be baked into a translation provider’s processes. If you don’t trust that your translation team is getting your message right, maybe it’s time to make a switch.