Let’s begin with the story of an annoyed novelist.
Mark Twain was perplexed and offended by a French translation of his short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County“. He was a good sport about the mistranslation, and the result was illuminating to us all, but he was probably miffed that the translator mishandled his trademark humor and style.
He decided to fight back: he re-translated the text literally, word for word, back into English. To help prove his point, he characterized the mishap and his effort with this title: The Jumping Frog: In English, Then in French, and Then Clawed Back Into A Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil. In 1903 he published his back-translation with his English-language original and the French translation.
Look at some examples of the original text and the back-translation.
Original: …he was the curiosest man about always betting on any thing that turned up you ever see, if he could get any body to bet on the other side; and if he couldn’t, he’d change sides.”
Back Translation: …he was the man the most fond of to bet which one have seen, betting upon all that which is presented, when he could find an adversary; and when he not of it could not, he passed to the side opposed.”
Original: ‘Well,’ he says, ‘I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog.’
Back Translation: “Eh bien! I no saw not that that frog had nothing of better than each frog.”
See why Mark Twain was peeved? Nothing really bad happened because of this bad translation, but the world would be poorer for mistranslations of a master. The moral of this story is: don’t translate Mark Twain unless you really understand what it means to transcreate a work of fiction.
Doing it Twice
A “back-translation” – effectively what Twain did – is a second translation, in reverse; the translation of a text back into the source language. It is a before and after. A translator performs this with no reference to the original text. Then, once you have two source versions, a linguist compares the source to the back-translation to see where the deviations are… and you can be sure there will be some. Some of those will be OK, minor, and some will not: the purpose is to see how faithful and how accurate the translation was to the original.
In our world, back-translations are performed all the time for certain types of content. What can a back translation help you avoid?
Medical and Safety Issues
If a highly technical manual or safety guide is mistranslated, the operator might not understand how to work the machine, change or fix a part, and someone could get hurt. Next, think about a medical form like a patient intake form that collects patient history, drug allergies, past surgeries, hereditary conditions, and a description of aches and pains. If a mistranslated version of the form itself is misleading, the patient’s responses may not give the right information.
If their answers on that form are mistranslated, a serious misdiagnosis could happen or the doctor may give the wrong treatment. While it’s not likely that every patient response can or should be translated or back-translated before they are given help, the form itself inarguably needs special attention.
Now consider the clinical trials: rigorously controlled tests of a new drug or a new invasive medical device on human subjects. Much of the documentation around this (such as informed consent forms) must be translated if the new product is to be tested in various markets, as well it should be. Also, ethics committees or institutional review boards often require back-translations here to ensure 100% faithfulness to the source material.
A concrete example: an informed consent form (ICF) would normally be subject to a back translation of the previously translated content into the original language, followed by a comparative review of the source and back translation, plus the usual QA review.
Other materials such as patient reported outcomes (PRO) – questionnaires collecting responses directly from patients during trials – typically include multiple (usually two) forward translations, followed by reconciliation, which is merging individual forward translations into a single forward translation, and then one, or in some cases two, back translations, and subsequent harmonization. Harmonization is the process of fine-tuning the translation after the back-translation process.
And let’s face it: hospitals want to manage their liability and so are concerned with accuracy of any translated material.
It’s no surprise that most back-translation work that LSPs provide falls into this safety/liability bucket. Other documents that fall into this category include surveys, polls / questionnaires, psychological studies, client-satisfaction assessments, among others.
Barriers to Market Acceptance
We’ve all seen loads of silly mistakes in translation: a sign, a slogan, a tagline. These are fun to laugh about, but the truth is that they can seriously affect in-market acceptance of a product.
Back translation is valuable for global market research questionnaires, where marketing teams depend on the shades of opinion coming in from consumers in order to craft messaging and even finalize the design of the product, to bring value to the final customer and increase sales. Inconsistencies in translated questionnaires will skew results and may cause problems when the product hits the market.
Errors in Historical Details
Sometimes the original source of a historical document doesn’t survive and all we have is its translated version. I know you are thinking: how would you know what you’ve got isn’t the original? The puns, humor, sentence structure, and other concepts don’t make any sense in the existing version. They fall flat. So, in this case historians may do back-translations to reconstruct the original text.
Getting closer to the original source language of historical documents can help with language reconstruction, understanding of linguistic evolution, and progress in the clarity of historical events.
For example, the Till Eulenspiegel folk tales are found in High German but they contain puns that work only when back-translated to Low German. This leads linguists to believe that these folk tales were originally written in Low German and translated into High German by an overly literal translator.
Who Has Your Back?
Back translations are less often used by annoyed novelists today than by organizations looking to ensure spot-on translations for sensitive materials.
For medical and pharmaceutical materials, the extra effort helps make sure that people are kept safe.
For marketing materials, the investment protects the huge effort in entering a given market in the first place.
In summary, companies consider back-translation for any translation project where the stakes are high.
If you are a linguist who has done back translation, what are the challenges? If you are an enterprise doing back translation, what concrete benefits has it brought? Feel free to comment below.