What Is Back Translation?

Back translation is a translation verification tool used mainly for medical translations. But what is it?

Back translation is a way of checking a translation by translating it back into its original language. But this method poses many problems, and translation services providers, as well as smart historians and writers, only use it in very specific cases.

An Analogy with Math

Mathematicians also use the back calculation method to check their operations: If a mathematical operation is successful, you should be able to do it back-to-front to return to the original number. For instance, 4 + 3 = 7 can be verified by 7-3 = 4. The same method is sometimes used in translation, which is where the first problem crops up: while mathematical symbols are inherently unambiguous, their linguistic equivalents are often polysemic and ambiguous and their semantic value conditioned by the syntactic context.

A Method Used for Medical Translations

Although back translation is occasionally used to verify translations, the method does not tend to be used for marketing translations or finance translations. It is most often applied to medical translations, particularly when the text is related to material used in clinical trials such as informed consent forms, ethics committees, and the committees set up to protect people which usually require a back translation.

A Strategy Also Used by Historians

Historians use back translation in two specific cases:

  • For instance, when a document has disappeared in its original language, but its translation has survived. We have, for example, the case of the French novel Manuscript Found in Saragossa (Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse) whose author, the Pole Jan Potocki, published excerpts from it in the early 19th However, as part of the original manuscript was lost, in order to reconstruct the text it was necessary to translate the passages missing into French from a Polish translation rendered decades later by Edmund Chojecki.
  • Another instance is when certain elements of a text lead one to assume that it is a translation. A case in point is that of the Folk Tales of Till Eulenspiegel, whose text in High German contains word plays that only make sense if the text is translated into Low German.

An Amusing Case

Finally, there is the case of the back translation by Mark Twain of one of his own novels. As he felt insulted by a journalist who translated –badly, in his opinion– his novel The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County into French, he retranslated it back into English (which was even worse) to show just bad the French translation was.

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