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Do I Really Need a Back-Translation?

A couple of weeks ago I received a request from a very well respected Medical Doctor to have his documents translated, but then he requested to have a back-translation as well. Although this is certainly not the first time I have had this request in my years as an Account Manager for one of the World’s leading Translations Agencies, it was the first time I really thought to myself…”why?”. When our company offers a 3-step process of translation, editing, and proofreading by industry specific translators, why would anyone want to pay the extra money for a back-translation? I did some research and spoke with some colleagues and I actually realized its importance.
First off, let me explain to my audience what a “back-translation” means. This job implies having an already translated text being translated back into the original source language but without reference to the source document. This immediately made me think of learning Algebra in the 6th Grade when my teacher would make me check my own answers by using “reverse operation”. Well, as much as I hated to do the same math problem twice, it did teach me the valuable lesson of double checking everything. The main difference in this regard is that numbers are mathematical symbols and will not change, but words often times have different meanings and will highly depend on the context in which they are embedded. While translating, you do not translate everything literally, and there is a whole range between a literal translation, like a legal one, up to a creative writing sought to translate a novel
This brought me to the conclusion that maybe a back-translation is not always accurate and may not actually show you the true quality of the translation. However, and more often than not, it serves the purpose of spotting avoidable mistakes in the forward translation or those ones arising from a poor understanding of the meaning of the source text. This happens to be the case for translations and back-translations legally enforced (or mandatory) for clinical trials.
Nonetheless, what a dilemma I have gotten myself into? Will a back-translation always provide a reliable way of double checking your translation, or is it just going to confuse the translator? I guess that question shall remain…

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