What is a Back Translation and When Do I Need It?

Language Service Provider (LSP), LSP, Translation Procurement

Here at DTS Language Services, Inc., we love to field questions about the translation industry and the work we do for clients. From time to time, we get questions about the particular terms and concepts of our trade. ‘Back translation’ is a concept that occasionally comes up in these conversations.

As your language services partner, we offer so much more than translations. We consult with clients on all aspects of their global businesses. Continue reading to find out more about back translation, the related idea of reconciliation, and how they could be useful to you. 

In many cases, those newly charged with overseeing the translation of documents for their companies have questions. They sometimes contact us saying, for example, “I’ve been told to get a back translation of a document we had another company translate for us, but I don’t know what that means. Can you define back translation and is this something you can help me with?” Not only are we happy to fulfill such requests, we’re happy to educate newer clients about the ins and outs of document translation services.

What is Back Translation?

Back translation is a method of quality control for your translations. The process is fairly simple. Here’s how it works: after you have received a complete translated text, you send the translation to an independent translator (who may be at the same translation agency or a different translation agency) and ask for the document to be translated back into the original source language. Then you compare the original with the back translation to check for quality and accuracy.

In this way, back translation helps you to identify any areas of error, ambiguity, or confusion that could arise with your translation. Due to the nature of language, however, you’ll never get a 100% perfect match using this method. 

Keep in mind that translation is more of an art than an exact science. Because the point of translation is to preserve the meaning of a translated text, it’s possible for two translators to come up with two different translations, which both preserve the meaning of the original text. 

To take one simple example, suppose you wanted the following sentence translated from English to German:

“Genes are tiny things you can’t see that tell your body how to grow.”

Here’s the German translation:

Gene sind winzige Dinge, die Sie nicht sehen können und die Ihrem Körper sagen, wie er wachsen soll.”

And the back translation: 

“Genes are very small and cannot be seen, but they give your body instructions about how to grow.”

The differences between the back translation and the original text are slight and unimportant in this case. So the back translation shows that you have an accurate German translation. 

One important point to consider is that back translations are often done as literally as possible to give an accurate representation of the exact meaning of the translation. In other words, a translator doing a back translation may notice awkward phrasing and preserve the awkwardness so that the client can pinpoint the problem and fix the original text if necessary. Because of this, some back translations may feel artificial or unnatural. 

However, if there are major semantic differences between the source document and back translation, it may not be clear where the fault lies. At this point, you may need to move to reconciliation to resolve the issue.

What is Reconciliation?

The reconciliation process starts by comparing the original source document with the back translation to look for any issues where the text may be confusing or the meaning slightly off. Next, during reconciliation, translators work with clients to make any edits and adjustments until the final translation is where it needs to be. 

After the independent translator performs a back translation, he or she will generate a report outlining all of the specific items that could be problematic. This report makes note of all differences or potential discrepancies, so the client can decide the best means of reconciling the two texts. 

Again, while some differences may be acceptable, reconciliation identifies any discrepancies allowing you to be the final judge of what matters. When translators discover discrepancies, they can then trace those issues back to figure out what steps should be taken to rectify them. Project managers may consult with the original translator to make adjustments and in cases where the problem can be traced back to an ambiguity in the original text, the project manager and translator may work with the original writer to clarify the intended meaning. 

The Project Manager will repeat this process for every discrepancy found and noted in the reconciliation report. The goal is for the source material and the back translation to have an equivalent meaning. In the end, the reconciled translation is optimized for quality and accuracy. 

A final report is usually submitted to the client along with the optimized translation. The report explains any discrepancies (e.g., mistranslations, localization recommendations, dialect differences) that were discovered and how they were addressed.

When Do I Need Back Translation and Reconciliation?

In a perfect world, every translation project would go through a back translation and reconciliation process. However, this process is really only needed with high value content. Most often, we see clients request these services in the life sciences and medical space including the pharmaceutical industry, medical device manufacturing, and clinical research. They often need back translations for clinical trial documents, marketing materials, forms (including patient consent forms), questionnaires, protocols, reports, and anything containing highly sensitive or high risk information. 

There is a good reason life sciences clients request back translation and reconciliation services most frequently: it’s the law. Any time you create written content that could affect the health or lives of patients or clinical trial participants, legal and regulatory requirements insist upon accuracy. Still, it’s hard to conceive of a translation project where accuracy didn’t really matter. 

For many organizations and institutions having a back translation to prove the accuracy of translated content is a legal or regulatory necessity. Most Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and Ethics committees, for instance, require back translations and certificates of accuracy to be submitted with all translated documents. These ensure that all patient-facing materials are of the highest quality.

In addition, regulatory boards in foreign countries often require back translations to verify advertising and promotional claims before the product can go to market. This is especially true when it comes to pharmaceutical companies making claims about medications. 

To sum up the points in this section: any high value content that must be accurate in all languages should go through a back translation and reconciliation process. Also, if the information being translated is especially complex or is associated with an above average level of risk, then a back translation is called for as well.

Yes, back translation helps you to satisfy legal and regulatory requirements, but if accuracy is important to your organization, then regardless of the legalities in your industry, this extra step may be smart. In fact, you could use it as part of your value proposition with your own clients. Taking this extra quality control step shows your commitment to quality in all aspects of your business.

Back Translations and Reconciliation Offer Extra Quality Assurance

Accuracy is important in every industry. However, there is always a tradeoff to be made between the time needed to rise to the next level of quality assurance and the cost of taking that next step. Back translation and reconciliation adds two extra steps to your translation project. Only you can decide if this next level of quality control will yield the necessary return on your investment. 

In general, we recommend using these services with especially high risk, high value multilingual projects. For your projects were one error or one mistranslated word can have serious consequences, the extra quality assurance can be the difference between success and failure. You will want to discuss your needs here upfront, so that you can plan in terms of your budget and timeframe. 

If you are skeptical about whether back translations are worth the extra time and money, consider that entire clinical research grants worth millions of dollars have been lost over inaccurate translations. Having back translations and reconciliation performed could have caught the error and saved researchers irretrievable time, money, and opportunities.

We can’t emphasize enough the peace of mind back translations bring our clients. Many of them know firsthand how costly translation errors can be.  

A Final Note of Warning

If you decide to hire a language service provider to do a back translation and reconciliation report that did not do the forward translation, be warned that you may run into trouble when it comes to reconciling the translations. For reasons of liability, many language service providers will not certify as accurate a translation their team did not work on from the beginning. 

In most cases, it is easier and smoother to have one language service provider perform all the steps (forward translation, back translation, and reconciliation) in the whole translation project. At DTS, we have a system and protocols in place so that we know at all times where your project is in the process. We do this not only so that we can give you realistic updates about deadlines and costs, but also so that we can sign off on our work with confidence.

We understand, of course, that for one reason or another you may need to change translation partners and we welcome projects in transition. However, we need to work closely with our clients to ensure satisfaction in these cases.

Regardless of your organization’s unique circumstances, our team is ready to ensure your high value information is translated with accuracy. Back translation and reconciliation services are critically important to achieving this mission. When exact meaning is priority #1, back translation provides you with an additional quality check. 

Since 1973, thousands of clients and organizations have trusted DTS Language Services, Inc. to get their messages out in any language. Our premium document translation services are top of the line and with our 95% on time delivery rate, we pride ourselves on our reliability. It’s no accident that we’ve been in business for over 40+ years. We’re here because our clients value the level of accuracy and the quality of our translation work.

Do you have a translation project in need of a personal touch? Are you looking for a back translation and reconciliation process that is smooth, easy, and gives you the results you’re looking for? Contact DTS by calling 800-524-0722 or filling out our quick online form. We’re ready to work with you!