For many years now, companies, especially those in the medical sector, have been required by law to provide both translations and back-translations of very important medical content, along with two sets of certifying letters. So why is it that the whole process still remains a nerve-wrecking experience for all parties involved and the process has not become any smoother over the years?

This blog looks to identify the pros and cons of back translations and reconciliation services for both the client, the translation agency and the translators themselves and whether they still serve a purpose in today’s field of translation when proofreading is a very common and effective service.

For many organizations and institutions having a back translation to verify content is a legal and regulatory requirement.” A back translation is a method of ensuring that a translation is of a very high standard. In the medical industry especially, there can be no room for error.

Back Translation – The Process

Translation

A typical translation process (with a translation agency, e.g. Lingua Translations) will begin with the translation. A suitable translator with experience in the subject area will translate the document to the best of their ability.

Proofreading (optional but Lingua Translations highly recommends!)

Despite knowing that the translation will be back translated, Lingua Translations still strongly recommends proofreading. A second linguist will then compare the source text against the target text and correct any errors that they find. Generally, proofreaders for professional translation agencies will only make stylistic changes, as the translations should already be of a good quality. Many back translation processes do not include proofreading, back translation replaces proofreading.

Back-translation

After having sent the proofread translation to the client, the client will ask for a back translation. The back translator cannot see the source text, but can be informed that they are providing a back translation.

Reconciliation service

Often the most time-consuming stage of the process. The client will scrutinise the back translation and compare it to the source text. As a general rule, the client will highlight and comment on all of the inconsistencies between the two texts and the Project Manager will then send these comments to both the translator and back translator until the correct changes have been made to both texts where necessary, and the reasons for the inconsistencies are explained (i.e. the term used in the back translation was too general). When the client is satisfied with the translations, they will be approved and the certifying letters will need to be sent to a client.

 

Pros and cons

Advantages of back translations

  • The finished result will be a translation of a very-high standard
  • There is little room for error and the company is therefore protecting themselves and others
  • The translation capabilities of the translators and back translators can be determined
  • They are a highly effective validation tool

Advantages of proofreading instead of back translation

  • The proofreader can pick up and amend all of the spelling/punctuation errors and mistranslations in the source text.
  • The translation will be improved stylistically, whereas a back translation only translates what has already been written.
  • Proofreading usually costs around half of the price of translation.
  • The proofreading process is quicker than the back translation process.

Disadvantages of back translations

  • They are time-consuming
  • They double the cost of translation
  • The back translation will never be identical to the source text, and there will always be discrepancies (to what extent these discrepancies are important differs from company to company)
  • The discrepancies between the two texts may be caused due to the different capabilities of the translators. E.g. if the back translator is not as experienced as the translator, there will be a distinct difference between the two translations.
  • By informing the translator that they are doing a back translation, this often results in a more general translation, which in turn is a hindrance to the process, as the translations need to be very accurate and to the point.

Disadvantages of using proofreading services instead of back translations

  • As there is no back translation, the client has to take the word of the translation agency that the translation has been faithfully translated or get it checked internally/externally.
  • There is no guarantee that the proofreader has remained loyal to the text with their amendments or has checked the text thoroughly (although of course with professional translation agencies, this should never happen).
  • The nuances between the source text and the translation that the clients will pick up on, will not necessarily be identified by the proofreaders.

Conclusion

In my role as Project Manager I have supervised various medical-related projects which required back translations and many that didn’t. In my experience I have found that those projects without back translations were completed a lot quicker and the proofreaders picked up on the major discrepancies between the two texts. However, there is of course more room for little nuances to be missed with proofreading.

Projects that involve back translations are very time-consuming but the quality can be guaranteed if the process is followed correctly. However, there is of course still room for error. A back translator may back translate how they believe the translation should be, instead of what is in fact written, therefore errors in the translated text may not be highlighted. Also both translators and back translators may be reluctant to make changes to the text when they believe they have already conveyed the correct meaning. Of course none of these problems should occur with a professional translation agency, but not all parties may be willing to give as much attention to a back translation project as it actually required (and this point is valid for all parties: the translators, Project Managers and the end client).

It seems to be a general consensus that back translations are very useful when used correctly. Despite being time consuming and being more costly, the finished product should meet the client’s expectations 100%. However, it is important to remember that back translations do not improve the style of the translated text and there is no guarantee that the translator will pick up on all mistakes found in this text. I therefore strongly believe that if a client wishes to use back translations, then they should opt for proofreading as well. This way, the text will be of a good quality and standard before it is back translated, and in essence, this should hopefully speed up the reconciliation process.

Neither proofreading or back translations can guarantee perfect translations, but by using both services concurrently, all bases are being covered and this should greatly facilitate the effectiveness of the translation process.