When it comes to translation, we typically think of what is known as a forward translation, converting the message from one language into another. However, there is another process known as a back translation. This is essentially the opposite, translating the target text back into the original source text language. The end result offers critical insights into the final translation and can play an essential role in the quality assurance process.
Forward translation: French → English
Backward translation: French → English → French
Just as there are many techniques a translator can adopt when creating a forward translation, there are multiple approaches to back translation. The rest of this article will now look at the specific approach we use here at Intertranslations. We designed this process to address the issues and limitations typical of back translations, demonstrating regulatory compliance and ensuring that our clients receive top-quality translations.
The source document is translated into the target language by a qualified team of translators who are native speakers of the target language. This is the forward translation process and involves a translator, editor and proofreader.
In some cases, we also suggest documents like the World Health Organization (mainly for Patient-Reported Outcomes, respectively instruments) undergo a dual forward translation, which is often a requirement of ethics committees. This is recommended as per the best practices identified by The International Society for Pharmacoeconomics and Outcomes Research or the World Health Organisation. A dual forward translation involves two independent translators creating two separate forward translations. These are then combined to create the best version.
During this step, we encourage the translator to highlight potential issues with the source text and any areas where its intended meaning is unclear. With globalisation and the spread of the English language, more and more English documents are being written by non-native English speakers—this article included. Sometimes, this can lead to unnatural language use and ambiguity. We acknowledge this to be the norm, and so we ask our translators to highlight any areas where they are unsure about the intended meaning.
Once the forward translation is complete, this is translated back into the source text language by another translator who has not read the original text. For example, if a clinical protocol is translated from English into Greek, the resulting Greek text will be translated back into English again.
Because the back translation is not going to be published, we let the translator know about its purpose and ask that the translation be more literal. If they are unaware of this, they might adapt the back translation to improve its style, hiding any potential quality issues. Of course, the back translation is not a direct word-for-word translation either. Instead, we take a standard translation approach, directly translating the words while using the structures and conventions of the source text language. This produces a clear text that allows us to understand the exact meaning of the translation.
Next, we review the back translation against the original source text, one sentence at a time. Again, we use another individual who has had no part in any of the previous translation steps, typically using a senior bilingual linguist. If they identify no discrepancies in meaning or any mistranslations, then the translation is considered accurate and the process is complete. However, should they find any inconsistencies, a bilingual table is created and potential errors are classified into semantic, idiomatic, experiential and conceptual.
This final step takes a collaborative approach, with all parties working together. There are multiple opportunities for mistakes to occur, from the original source text and initial forward translation to an overly literal back translation of a correct forward translation.
These errors can quickly lead to a sense of conflict, but we believe in fostering a positive working relationship that benefits everyone. We achieve this by having translators and clients establish an ongoing dialogue, discussing any potential error or discrepancy. The project manager discusses them with the client and with the original translator, correcting any of the texts if necessary.
All errors large and small must be analysed for us to determine what caused them and prevent them from occurring again. If there are any changes, the forward translator describes these in exact detail. This allows the back translator to submit a new back translation of the changed segments. The entire procedure is documented along with reasons explaining any changes made.
The benefits of back translation
This collaborative approach leads to fewer errors for better forward and back translations, while fostering a positive rapport between us, our clients and our translators. It does require more time and therefore higher costs, but can this additional investment be justified?
Back translations are still the gold standard for health authorities when it comes to translation and quality assurance. As long as this remains true, back translations can help produce the highest quality translation possible and improve your chances of approval.
For other areas of translation, as long as back translations are carried out with the right intentions, they can significantly improve the quality of your texts. By identifying any errors, we can also prevent them from happening again, proving beneficial in the long run.
At Intertranslations, back translation is much more than just a tool for you to comply with the regulatory requirements or to check the quality of the translation. We use it as a valuable tool in understanding the decision-making process of all parties—forward translators, back translators, reviewers and clients. When done correctly, this helps facilitate communication between these parties and streamline the translation process for high-quality, accurate results, both for current and future projects.