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Many clients, regardless of whether they speak or are familiar with a language they are having translated, ask to have a back translation of the translated text (the “forward translation”) back into the source language. The theory is that the back translation should match up with and accurately reflect the source text, and where it does not, something must be literally lost in translation.

While this exercise may seem unnecessary for someone who speaks both languages in question, it is without a doubt of great value to someone who does not.

Back translations are requested most frequently for advertising copy, slogans and tag lines and any other mission critical information to make sure concepts were interpreted correctly and that nothing important was left out. And many times when exact linguistic equivalents do not exist in a foreign language, the back translation will shed light on how the translation strays from the original, and the client reviewer can then decide if this is acceptable or not.

By pointing out errors of omission or mistranslations, back translations are an important tool to validate a translation and then improve or correct it where necessary.  They also serve in a more general sense to verify that idiomatic expressions carry through to the target language appropriately and in context.

Consider the expression “To kill two birds with one stone” as it might be used in a print ad along with the picture of a single stone and a couple of birds. In German, this expression translates as “To swat two flies with one stroke” and in Korean you “Catch two fish with one hook.” Any translator who would not render the English expression with the proper idiomatic foreign language equivalent would not be worth his or her paycheck.  

Though it may seem counterintuitive, the back translator actually has to be very literal for the exercise to work properly.  For example, faced with a Korean text that reads “Catch two fish with one hook” it would be a mistake back-translate idiomatically as “Kill two birds with one stone.” The correct back translation should be a literal “Catch two fish with one hook” so the client can now realize that the picture of the stone needs to be replaced with a fish hook and some fish for the Korean translation and a fly swatter and some flies for the German.

Back translations are not always that dramatic and it should be noted that they do generate quite a bit of discussion, in particular when it comes to word choice.  A “car” might be translated as a “Auto” in German and then back translated as a “automobile,” prompting a reader to think that something might not be right.  Very often the back translation will generate question and answer sessions and will require patient discussions to clarify issues and avoid suggesting problems that actually do not exist.

But there are some things they cannot do.  Replicating faulty grammar or punctuation may not be possible.  Here, then, a comment must be inserted into the back translation to alert the client to what needs to be remedied. Thus the back translation  is also in part an exercise in editing and proofreading, requiring superb language skills in both languages.


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