One way that language experts check their translations is by translating them back into the original language. If the back-translation is close to the original, with the same implications and meanings, then it’s a good translation. If it’s not, the back-translation can show where the document still needs work.
Mistakes in machine translations especially show up this way. Reversing a machine translation is called “round trip translation.” With certain documents, like informed consent forms for medical clinical trials, a back-translation is often required for ethical reasons.
Mark Twain popularized the practice when he back-translated a French translation of one of his short stories. He published the back-translation with the French translation and his original story to show the differences.
Care needs to be taken with back-translations to differentiate a true mistranslation or confusion from an idiomatic one. Idioms are intended to create familiarity with the reader, by using “street language” in one’s description. It’s not expected that an idiom used in translation would convert back to the original language and make any sense. But phrases that are not idioms that don’t make sense are another thing. Those do need to be cleaned up.
Interestingly enough, we sometimes use idioms without realizing it, because the phrase is so familiar. A back-translation will point it out, so we can change it, if it serves the translation to do so.
In addition, idioms and confusing phrases in a document that we didn’t know was a translation can be back-translated to its original state, so we “get” the reference. Once seen in its original context, the idiom makes sense. This is why there have been so many back-translations of the Bible into Greek and Aramaic. It was an attempt to find the original language in which the Bible was written, as well as to clear up the meaning of some of its more obscure passages.
Here are some of the benefits of back-translating a document:
- Finding major differences in the original translation that need clearing up.
- Catching idioms used that might not be serving the translation.
- Finding out what some phrases mean that made sense in the original, but not the target language.
- Checking nuances to make sure the translation feels the same as the original.
If you have documents that you know were translated from another language, but aren’t sure are accurate, give us a call. One of our skilled translators can help you retranslate to the original language.