Back-translation

Definition

When talking about a back-translation or a round-trip translation it means that the text is being translated back into its original language by a translator, who has no prior knowledge of the specific content or wasn’t involved in the project – leaving the back-translation as pure as possible. But what’s the purpose of doing so?

Unreliability

One might argue that translating a text back into its original language will only result in a facetious version of the original – mainly because words are ambiguous. It might also be the case that the original writing style, due to a functional translation, has changed the text slightly. An example hereof is Mark Twain’s publication of his own book back-translated word for word into English from French. http://translation-blog.trustedtranslations.com/mark-twains-back-translation-2008-10-27.html)

Quality check

A back-translation is, however, often used to check the translation’s quality and accuracy. Some agencies test the translator’s translation skills, by back translating the translation, to see whether a translator managed to gasps the wording. This method can be compared to a mathematical formula, which is being calculated backwards to check the accuracy – all though, as already mentioned, it cannot be done as precise as math, because words are ambiguous and numbers are unequivocal.

Historic documents

Another scenario could be the case, where historic documents only survive as a translation, and then researchers undertake the task to back translate the document in order to recreate the original. Likewise, sometimes when a document is suspected of being a translation from another language, researchers  back translate the document into the hypothetical original language,  which in some cases can provide evidence of characteristics such as idioms, puns, grammatical structures  and so on, which in fact derived  from the original language. An example hereof is the German folk tales Till Eulenspiegel in High German, which contains puns that only work when back translated into Low German.

So if you ever come across incomprehensible references or text phrases, then it might be more comprehensible or make more sense, if you back translate it. This problem brings us back to another topic, namely which translation technique to choose, when translating: word-for-word or sense?  

Market research

In Asia, they especially practice back-translation in connection with global market researches. This way translated questionnaires remain consistence and thus ensures the accuracy of the result, without jeopardizing the result. In market research, the smallest variation of the sense of the word counts in order to prepare a campaign, promotion etc. Since back-translation is a costly matter, it’s not done every time, but in high-risk situations it can turn out to be a good investment.

No need to say that back-translations of market research need to be carried out by a translator, who can translate verbatim, as you cannot always find equivalent words in the target language.

I have never my self tried to back translate a text or something like that, but it could be interesting to see the result. Please let me know if you have ever tried it and how it turned out. I might try it some time, just for the fun of it.

/Sembach

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