Your new localization provider has just delivered the translation you requested.

It’s been through a standard translation, editing and proofing (TEP) process involving multiple linguists, but you’re uneasy. Your product is about to ship or your ad is going nationwide, and you want to check the translation one last time. So you opt for a back translation.

What Is Back Translation?

Back translation is the act of translating a target text back in to the language of the source text, without seeing that source text.

Once you get it back, all you have to do is compare it to the original source document and, if everything matches, you’re home free! Right?


The truth is, everything won’t match…even if the original translation is accurate. And then you’ll tie yourself into knots wondering what went wrong. How could your localization provider have missed the mark by so much, so close to your deadline?

They didn’t.

Consider a simple word like “buy”. How many synonyms are there for “buy” in English? Get, purchase, obtain, procure, acquire, secure, pay for… And what about the target language? Even more word choices to make! By the time you get to the back translation, if your source text says “buy” and the back translation says “obtain”, will that be an issue? What if your source text contains marketing terms like “out-of-box experience” or “facelift”? While many marketing terms do remain in English, the possibilities are mind boggling.

The most important considerations, however, go well beyond the words. All texts are written with a certain context and message in mind. The job of a good translation team is to accurately convey those to the target audience. So, both the source and the target have to be finely tuned and well crafted. Not so with a back translation, that is generally a rapid rendering back in to the source language. So, not only will the words not match, but the context, crafting and “feel” will be lost, as well, and likely will give the false impression that the translation, itself, is not accurate.

Needless to say that an online machine translation (MT) tool will render even less useful back translations, as it will ignore the context altogether. How do you think an online MT tool will render sayings such as “It was raining cats and dogs” in a foreign language? It will translate this phrase literally and, as you can imagine, the target text will not make much sense to its readers. However, if you were to back translate the literal translation using an online MT tool, the sentence would come out “right” in English. Would you be happy then?

By and large, such a back translation, no matter if done by a human or a machine, will mislead you, and cause you needless anxiety and extra cost.

Considering the above, can back translations play a positive role in the translation process?

Yes. Trained translation professionals who understand the nuances, idioms, semantics and culture of both languages can use back translation during the editing process to help resolve tricky passages or detect omissions. For those reasons, a back translation step is sometime requested as part of the QA (Quality Assurance) process for medical or legal clients.

Nonetheless, a back translation, alone, does not determine translation quality and does not need to be requested for every translation job. Careful consideration is needed before spending extra time and money on a back translation you won’t need.

For more information on many other localization topics, download one of our free Localization Guides here.


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Translation Beyond Words

Control Your Terminology, Right out of the Gate!


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