Back translation – sense and nonsense

Back translation is a long-established method for checking the accuracy and unambiguity of clinical trial documentation, such as patient consent forms. In that context it is meant to ensure that no information is lost or can be interpreted in a way that is different from the original meaning.

Back translation is a long-established method for checking the accuracy and unambiguity of clinical trial documentation, such as patient consent forms. In that context it is meant to ensure that no information is lost or can be interpreted in a way that is different from the original meaning. It is a quality assurance step for the safety of patients.

The stages of back translation are:

Step 1: Translator No. 1 translates the source text into the target language (“forward translation”).

Step 2: Translator No. 2 takes that text and translates it back into the source language. The back translator is aware that he/she is asked to perform a back translation – and is therefore under instruction to translate more literally (if not word-for-word) than they normally would. This is NOT an elegant, stylistically accomplished translation, but instead a factual, accurate one that stays as close as possible to the text that is being translated. Importantly, the back translator is not shown the original text.

Step 3: An independent person (who is not normally a translator, but perhaps a clinical project manager with good language skills and judgement) will then compare the back translation against the original source, sentence by sentence (these are both in the same language, so no translation is involved). This careful checking process will (and certainly should) uncover any issues, discrepancies or translation mistakes (but also ambiguities that might be inherent in the source).

All such discrepancies and doubts are then brought to the table, with the original translator and the back translator present, with everyone explaining their choices, discussing any possible implications, and finally agreeing on the optimal translation. The aim is to achieve a text that is totally transparent, easy to read and understand, which does not contain any ambiguities. This may involve changes in terminology, such as swapping a Latin name for a disease for a more colloquial term, or using a simpler phrase to describe a symptom. So a change might involve using “Entzündung der Herzinnenhaut” instead of “Endokarditis”, or “Speiseröhre” instead of “Oesophagus”.

Both the forward and the back translator as well as the other person(s) involved should be qualified translators and/or linguists and have good subject-matter knowledge. Most importantly, they should all be human. As far as I am aware, everyone involved in clinical trial documentation/translation is human. I do not believe that MT engines are being deployed in this highly sensitive context – but I am prepared to hear that I am wrong in this assumption.

Other scenarios where back translation is sometimes used are the legal field, for particularly sensitive information, statements in a court, or a last will perhaps, where every word is crucial and no mis-interpretation must creep in.

In fact you might use back translation in any situation when you want to be completely certain that the reader of the translation is given precisely the information that is in the source, nothing more and nothing less. It might be useful for labels and user instructions for pharmaceutical products, or for human and pet food (exact ingredients and allergen warnings, for example).

Another, totally different context where Back translation has a place is when translating slogans and catch phrases. Clients who are ordering Transcreation of slogans typically ask for several suggestions (usual number is 3), with a back translation, to give them a good idea of what exactly is being said in the foreign languages, i.e. how their message gets transformed. They may also ask for a rationale for each of the proposals, to help them decide which option to go for.

A recent real-life example at Alpha was within the context of a Design and Lifestyle magazine which contained an article about how covid has changed our relationship with our home, and particular the role of the kitchen. One of the headlines that was needed for German and French was:

Cooking is the new commute.

DE – Close translation (1:1): Kochen ist das neue Pendeln
Back translation: Cooking is the new commute.
Here (unsurprisingly), the Back translation is an exact 1:1 equivalent of the original source

Alpha‘s proposed transcreation: Lieber in der Küche stehen als im Stau.
Back translation: Better to stand in the kitchen than in a traffic jam OR: I’d rather be (stuck) in the kitchen than in a traffic jam.

Here, the back translations are helpful in showing how the meaning was conveyed in a totally new way, with a good rhythm, and making use of the fact that “in der Küche STEHEN” and “im Stau STEHEN” are good phrases to achieve the desired contrast.

FR – Close translation: Cuisiner est le nouveau déplacement quotidien
Back translation: Cooking is the new commute.
Here, the back translation is an exact 1:1 equivalent of the original.

Alpha’s proposed translation: Faire la cuisine est plus agréable que faire la navette
Back translation:Cooking is more pleasurable than commuting
Here, back translation makes it clear that this is a good and legitimate way of transcreating the slogan

Another current example of Back translation is a client checking product descriptions for accuracy and appropriateness by performing back translations. In principle a perfectly sound idea. The problem is that they are using Google Translate for the purpose, and while this works very well in certain cases, it doesn’t always. With simple instructions and product descriptions it can detect omissions (or unwanted additions), but easily falls over when idiomatic expressions, puns, double-entendres, plays on words and witty turns of phrase are involved.

All of the latter, as we well know, are dangerous territory for MT, especially if you go by the engine‘s first suggestion only, rather than exploring suggested alternatives. Such a machine-generated 1:1 back translation may well give you something that is nonsense or seems a long way off. Because the machine just doesn’t get the clever part that goes beyond the actual words you see on the page. And of course you do not get the benefit of a human rationale.

I would say the cleverer a slogan or headline in the source, the more of an effort and the more of a deviation it needs to make sense in another language. And wherever forward translation is hard, back translation is even harder. That of course is why so many slogans never get translated, they’re just too clever. “Have a coke”, or “Make taste, not waste” or “Because you’re worth it” might best be left in English.

With headlines in product descriptions that is often not an acceptable option. Which is why you need to tread carefully with witty headlines. Or make absolutely sure the translators “get it” and come up with a great idea.

One magazine that is a never-ending source of inspiring headlines that make me gasp at the thought of being asked to translate is The Economist (not that we’ve ever been asked …). Here are just a few recent headlines to consider if you’re up for a challenge. See if you can come up with creative translations, or try out Google or DeepL to see what they make of them:

Mind the gap year (Mind the gap being a well-known warning on the London Underground … this is about students in Finland ending up idle after they leave school and not making anything out of their gap year)

In need of a fix (Nicola Sturgeon searches for a solution to Scotland’s drug-death crises)

Watching them watching you (about surveillance programmes in China)

It takes two to disentangle (about the relationship between Argentina and the IMF)

A vaxxing problem (about US export regulations hampering global vaccine production)

Kicking Covid (about footballers helping the vaccination effort)

Message in a bottleneck (about the Suez canal being blocked)

Beating expectations (about UK firms coping with the lockdown against all expectations)

Spreading the needle (how to share the vaccines across the globe)

Tanks again (about a tank exercise on the battlefields in France) These are examples of true challenges for translators, and might act as a bit of a warning to clients who want their slogans and catchphrases translated into a variety of languages. Especially when their phrases are very clever and subtle, as they could easily cause a major headache further downstream – or simply get lost in translation – and even more in back translation!

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