The Language Factory translates into a wide range of languages every day. Although by the nature of our business we are fortunate enough to have native speakers of a number of languages in-house, our clients don’t always have the same resources. Knowing that the translations they have commissioned are accurate and fit-for-purpose therefore becomes a challenge.
There are a few options available to clients to gain confidence in their translations. Proofreading is one and, in our opinion, the best method as it allows issues to be identified and rectified in a single-step process. Clients can also request a report on any changes so they can understand exactly what needed amending.
Back-translation is also often considered as a method for reviewing translation quality.
The translation / back-translation process
- Original language A
- Translate into language B
- Translate language B back into language A
- Compare original language A with “new” language A and identify discrepancies
The process doesn’t stop there; any apparent discrepancies need to be reviewed in the translated document (language B) to establish whether the translation is incorrect and amend it if necessary.
For someone who doesn’t speak the language or languages their document has been translated into, being able to compare a “new” source language document with the original may seem like the ideal solution. But what if the problem isn’t in the translation but in the back-translation?
Beneficial or bewildering?
Consider the following, somewhat simplistic, example. You need to have the statement, “I like eating cheese” translated into French. The translator, after careful consideration, produces two options: “j’aime beaucoup le fromage” and “j’aime manger du fromage.”
You may know that both convey the meaning of the original English but if you translated them literally, word-for-word, into English, you would or could get:
- “I really like cheese” for the former and;
- “I like eating some cheese” or;
- “I like eating of the cheese” for the latter
Obviously neither says exactly what the English says. The former includes “beaucoup” (really) for emphasis, stylistically more appropriate in French but unnecessary in English, and omits the word “eating”, considered implicit in French. The latter example introduces even more issues because “du”, which has to be included for grammatical reasons, can mean both “some” and “of the.” English does not require a similar word so including one obviously sounds wrong. The overall impact is the sense that the French must not convey the correct meaning whereas in fact, it does.
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Showing your workings
It’s equally possible that the back-translation compares perfectly with the original source even though the translation was incorrect or contained issues. Imagine a maths student doing their homework is asked to explain their calculations. In showing their workings, it turns out they used the wrong method. They obtained the right answer more by good luck than good guidance and they have marks deducted.
Similarly, a translator may have misinterpreted the source but the back-translator inadvertently puts it right. Spelling and grammar mistakes are just as likely to be missed in this process because a translator is unlikely to replicate them in their back-translation. And if they did, how would the client know whether they were spelling mistakes in the translation or just in the back-translation?
The best course of action
There are definitely benefits to back-translation from a client point of view in terms of having a way of checking translations and it never does any harm to make sure translators fully understand your text. Despite the advantages, though, there are weaknesses in the process.
In addition to what we’ve already mentioned, it’s worth considering the cost and time implications of back-translation. Generally speaking, back-translation will cost around twice as much as proofreading and take twice as long, if not longer.
To ensure your carefully crafted document has been understood and conveyed in another language, you may want to consider a consultation process. If you have a list of adjectives, for example, describing a new cereal, providing explanations of how you differentiate between crunchy and crispy or sweet and sugary could be the difference between consumers potentially loving or hating a product. Clearing up any doubts at the start will always be quicker and more efficient than checking and possibly putting things right later on. For extra reassurance, you can also have it proofread by a second qualified translator who’ll flag any issues and fix them at the same time.